'To follow' and 'to share'

We all know the meanings of words change over time – sometimes even drastically. But do we realise just how much language can evolve? Take for example, the two infinitives 'to follow' and 'to share'.

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines “share” (the verb) as: “1 have or give a share of something”, “2 possess or use jointly with others”, “3 (share in) participating in an activity” and “4 tell someone about something”.
The same dictionary has many definitions for the word “follow”:

  • 1 move or travel behind someone or something
  • 2 go after someone so as to observe them
  • 3 go along a route or path
  • 4 come after in time or order
  • 5 (also follow on from) happen as a result of something else
  • 6 be a logical consequence
  • 7 act according to an instruction or example
  • 8 accept someone as a guide, example, or leader of a movement
  • 9 take an interest in or pay close attention to
  • 10 understand someone or something
  • 11 practise or undertake a career or course of action
  • 12 (follow something through) continue an action or task to its conclusion
  • 13(follow something up) pursue or investigate something further

These meanings are quite common (well most of them anyway) and yet, these words are still evolving today. Take for example, social networking. These two words have become commonly associated with social networking and social networking sites such as Facebook. Most websites actually have a “share” button where you can post content directly to Facebook or other social networks (see below). Now I suppose the evolution of language is a good thing (to an extent) and it means that language constantly adapts and changes to the needs of its speakers, but these two little words have taken on such different meanings from their original intentions.

To share no longer requires face to face interaction, all you need is the push of a button and voila, the world has been informed of your thoughts, your actions, your desires, your hates, your likes, your everything. And there really isn’t an end to what people share. And there also isn’t much discretion involved when it comes to who we share with. What I’m saying isn’t new, but I think looking at the language involved is pretty interesting.

To follow has also taken on a new dimension as a commonly used word. We now follow the status updates of celebs, friends, co-workers, groups, even our enemies. I even saw an advertisement on a van the other day encouraging people to “follow” company xyz on Facebook. Definition 8 is particularly interesting to me when applied to the social networking scene. To follow someone would imply that we accept them as a guide or leader, in other words, someone with authority and influence over our thoughts and actions. That is a rather scary thought… we consciously (through the click of a button) allow the people we follow to influence us (of course this is self-evident – we follow who we like and don’t follow who we dislike), but the full impact of this influence is probably on a sub-conscious level.

What is interesting though is that both these words have their origins in Old English.

To share possibly comes from the word dǣlan, which means to separate into parts, so literally to share out something (Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online). The use of the word would be when the community’s goods were shared out amongst the people.

To follow possibly comes from the word lǣstan, which means to attend to someone, accompany someone or do service to someone (Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online), or folgian, which means to go behind, go after or pursue someone/something (Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online)

The Old English meanings of these words have evolved from very literal meanings to applications in a world that the people who first used these words would never have imagined possible. Isn’t it just amazing how language evolves and changes – for better or for worse. ;-)

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