Every now and then, I find myself getting annoyed about a certain word. Recently, it’s been the word, should.
You’ve probably all heard the phrase “stop shoulding all over me”!
And that’s the sense in which I was taking it; that I should be doing stuff – whatever that stuff happened to be – and if I didn’t, then I was bad and wrong. And that’s one way it’s commonly used. To make someone, even if that happens to be yourself, wrong about not doing something.
I should get more exercise. I should get to bed earlier. You should eat less cookies. You should go on a diet…..should should should.
This is not a positive way to go about things! Should I be using should here? That’s one part of the question. The other part is wondering what should really means based on how it came to be. So when should should be used?
When I start feeling that way about a word, I also get a nagging feeling that maybe as a society we have inadvertently started to misuse it, by adding extra meaning that wasn’t originally associated with that word.
So I looked into how the word should came to be and here’s what I found in Wiktionary.
It is derived from the Old English word sceolde, a preterite form of sculan. Ok, now there’s 3 words I don’t know anything about: sceolde, preterite, and sculan. Be patient, it will get clearer, I promise.
Working bass akwards, sculan has origins in Proto-Germanic (skulana) and Proto-Indo-European (skel) and both mean “to owe” or “must, should, shall”. The transitive verb form is the “to owe” and the auxiliary verb is the “shall/should/must” form. Just to remind us (because I forgot too!), transitive verbs are those that require one or more objects (I kick the ball) but stand alone and auxiliary verbs need other verbs (I shall go to the dance).
Preterite is simple. Just means belonging wholly to the past. Sceolde is not used anymore. It belongs in the past. So we’ll forget about sceolde for now, although I’m sure that would be an interesting ramble for another time.
Getting back to sculan, there are 3 different senses in which it is used. The transitive one in which it is purely to owe something to someone. Could be money, could be a favour, whatever. The second sense is to be obliged to. This is a bit more subtle than a simple owing. This has a must or should flavour to it. I have to pee, I must find a toilet! She called me twice yesterday, I really should call her back. The third sense is the to be going (or about) to do something. I think I shall call her back. I shall do my laundry right after I finish this cup of coffee.
And this is where the guilt and bad connotations arise; using the “obliging” second sense when the “gonna do” third is really where you want to come from. And vice versa. I think the problem comes in when we confuse a true obligation with a simple desire. You’d like to lose 20 pounds and to do that you probably need to increase your activity and decrease or alter your food intake. So you tell yourself “I should lose 20 pounds”.
But you have no obligation to do that! You are not obliged to lose 20 pounds. You are not obliged to go on a diet. You’re not obliged to increase your level of exercise. You may have a strong desire to do this but you may never actually manifest that desire by acting upon it. Unless……and this is a big one, you feel obliged to yourself, or another loved person to do this for. And then you actually act upon that desire or obligation.
(Desire is another ramble for another time. Humans have been working on that one for as long as we can remember and no one has yet figured it out completely! So let’s not go there right now, other than to acknowledge that it’s a part of the picture.)
An example of how we might thoughtlessly use should: You think to yourself, I worked really hard this week, I owe it to myself to go out for dinner and see a movie. In which case you can say, “I worked really hard this week. I should take myself out for dinner and a movie”. But to my mind, even better – you can also say “I shall take myself out to dinner and a movie”. And actually, using shall is way more positive because now you have committed to doing this for yourself, whereas the “should take myself out” has a little bit of uncertainty still attached to it. As if you feel you owe it to yourself, but you’re not actually going to give yourself that reward. And bingo, we’re into the guilt trip. We should have done it but we didn’t!
And let’s be perfectly clear, guilt is a great motivator! Jewish mothers and grandmothers – mine included – have capitalized on this for centuries! It’s such a small piece of pie left, you should eat it so I don’t have to throw it away! Or “What? I should make your bed?! Who slept in it!!??” and so on.
It’s kinda sneaky that way. Before you know what happened, you shoulded on yourself. Drat!
How can we stop doing that? Well maybe it’s such an ingrained habit we can’t. But I like to believe that we can change, and especially when it’s for the better.
What I recommend is every time you use or are about to use the word should, step back for a second and think whether you’re talking about a must do, an obligation, an owing, or an act that you’re going to or about to do.
Just take a bit more care when using this one. Be a little kinder to yourself and others. Think of it as a random act of kindness. I know I shall.