Taking Back the Word «Should»

Warning: Linguistic nerding ahead!

When I studied linguistics at university college a few years ago, there was this one thing that got repeated over and over again. The word is only a word; it’s just sounds put together to make a unit, and that unit is only a representation of something. The word «cat» is not THE cat, but a symbol and a representation of the common idea of what a cat is. And this is where communication gets tricky. The general idea of the underlying concept has to be present and fairly alike in all who uses that particular word, lest the communication fall completely apart.

As I read Jackie Walker’s post today, about the word should, all this came to mind again. Because I really don’t have a problem with that word. I guess I’m one of those she refers to when she says:

Should is  a word which gives our bodies, minds and hearts a mental battle rendering us defeated and exhausted.  If that’s not putting you off using it, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

No, I’m not. 🙂

But as I thought about this word, and went through the emotions in me when I hear or use it, I realized that it’s mainly a positive feeling. When I use the word should,  it’s about possibilities. Opportunities. The future, and all things bright. I could say something like:

*excited gasp* You know what I should? I should [insert something really exiting here]. YES!!!

Like when I lost my job some years back, and when I finally saw the light and decided that I should follow my heart and one true passion, and go back to school and study language and literature. It’s that kind of should. It’s a good should. It’s a should that symbolizes my true soul’s need, and that can only be wonderful.

I guess this is a case where my general idea of concept differs from most of yours. That is why you will see me use the word should in a negative sense here and there on this blog, trying to speak «your language», in a way. I know I’m probably a minority in this case.

But never the less, Jackie’s post fascinated me in a linguistic sense.  A lot of the English words came from Scandinavia (and as you probably already know, I’m Norwegian), many of them remained the same with a different pronunciation, and many of them have changed slightly or almost completely in both languages since the Norse times. But if I were to present you with the rather ridiculous sentence «koke flatt egg», you’d  probably be able to translate it fairly quickly to «cook flat egg». There are a lot of similarities going on.

I had to google the etymology regarding the word should after I was done feeling it through, to find out what it’s all about.  This is what I came up with:

Should. c.1200, from O.E. sceolde, past tense of sceal (see shall). Preserves the original notion of «obligation» that has all but dropped from shall. (Source)

Aha! Sceolde! Scandinavians still use that word, the present tense of it is now spelled «skal», and has a slightly different meaning than the obligation part. You can substitute it with «will», depending on the message, much like the English «shall», even if you can still use it in the imperative sense, restricting one’s actions (Thou shall not…). And this word in past tense, turned into our version of should: skulle.

More googling on the etymology on skulle leads to this (translated):

Norse: skulu, expresses

1. Pure future; there will/shall be changes, we will/shall leave tomorrow
2. Obligation, demand; you will/shall brush your teeth every night, you will/shall tell me what this is, you should help your brother
3. Promise; I will/shall wait, it will be OK
4. Possibility; it should be doable, it should be real gold
5. Good manners; should it be one more cup of coffee?
6. Expressions of wonder, like «what was he doing there?» could be translated to «hva skulle han der å gjøre» – literally «what should he there to do» (Source)

Yeah, some of these sentences just look plain weird.

And there’s more. We also have another word, with almost the same meaning, who almost has completely merged with our skulle, who then became your should. This is actually the word we translate should to today, as skulle is simply stating a fact of will and  intention.

That other word is burde.

I guess you’re thinking the same as me here. Burden, right? The heavy, heavy stuff you carry on your shoulders? I thought so, too.

But look:

From Norse «tilkomme» – I’ve been trying to find the best translation for this, but I’m at a loss. It’s used about getting what you deserve, in a way, receiving what’s coming to you. It’s a compound of two words; to and come. Come to.

1. Impersonal, in set expressions like «honor the one who honor comes to», meaning that he has but to receive it, it’s already his.
2. Personal, translated from impersonal expressions; should, be probable, have a right or a duty. I should have known. One should take omega-3. One of us should be there. (Source)

Somehow,  it seems that the meaning of these two Norse words merged in English (as evidenced by my need to drag in should in the translation). I’m also thinking that it might have to do with the code of honor and the sense of positive duty, integrity and pride, which was a lot stronger back in Norse times than it is now. It’s literally lost in translation, both from Norse to Old English  and then from old times to our days. Chivalry is, if not dead, deep in a coma, leaving mainly the bad connotations of having to live up to something outside of yourself behind.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose which meaning we put into our symbols and words. We can choose to emphasize the good should‘s and fill them with positive ideas. We can base all our should‘s on authenticity, integrity and birth rights.

The word(s) in itself, from the beginning, has a lot of really good stuff in it. Pure future. Promise. Possibility. Receiving what’s coming to you, getting what’s rightfully yours.

I guess this is where I’m coming from, too, when I read or hear the word should with my Norwegian set of concepts. It holds (almost) no bad meaning for me, I choose to focus on the good stuff. And I refuse to have it broken and demonized; much like some pagans call themselves witches in order to take back the word, I’m now taking back the word should.

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0 thoughts on “Taking Back the Word «Should»

  1. How I love this break down, I started but got lost in translation, I was rather hoping to find a positive end for the word too, and am glad to see that you’ve unlocked the code!

    In your example ‘I should do this’, I can get your excitement too, I’d probably use ‘could’, to me that implies a lot more possibility!

    1. Yeah, you really had me thinking today, I love that! It’s so much fun to explore the ideas behind the words, and how they differ from person to person, so thank you for your comment as well as your original post! 🙂

      If I used «could», it would mean that «yeeeaah, I could, but I probably won’t». «Should», to me, is a lot more insisting in a fiery, inspirational way, where «could» is just a distant, airy and theoretical possibility of something that probably won’t manifest. «Should» is that internal drive, the ambition, the desicion that’s already made, and now I just need to act upon it to recieve my bliss, sort of thing.

      I love language! 🙂

  2. This illustrates the importance of the use of language, its flexibility, versatility, and subtlety. Language is powerful because of its use, with our mindsets and intentions, whether positive or negative.

    I should like to read more of your posts, but I really should sleep (both good shoulds).


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