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The Changing Nature of Language

(Or From Blimey to Bizjet, Wireless to Whoa!)

From England…

It was George Bernard Shaw who said “England and America are two countries separated by a common language” and as someone who once found herself at cross purposes with an American whilst trying to explain that I was on holiday in his lovely country, I concur. The aforementioned Floridian eventually rationalised that ‘Saturday is a holiday, I suppose’ and left me only later to realise that, had I just said I was on vacation in his lovely country, there would have been no such confusion.* More importantly, we could have spared ourselves the (no doubt mutual) suspicion that the other person was somehow ‘not quite right in the head’.

…to America.

The adaptation of English to a new transatlantic form of English was largely a deliberate move in the early nineteenth century, a way of differentiating American English from British English, thus helping form its unique identity. It is largely credited to American lexicographer Noah Webster (he of the dictionary fame, which must have provided him with the perfect vehicle for his work, I suppose).

From Sitting Round the Wireless to Streaming on the Go

 

The wireless from a bygone era.

It should therefore come as no surprise that our language is by no means static. It is always changing, even more so today when the entire world is available for us to communicate with at the click of a mouse, and people move freely across countries and continents, spreading their peculiarities of speech with the ease of the common cold. Similarly, in this fast changing digital age, with new inventions comes the need for a whole new vocabulary to describe them. My grandparents, for example, listened to the wireless, my parents to the radio.  Recently I was disappointed to discover my Ford Fiesta did not sport a ‘digital radio’, but in a few years even the term ‘digital radio’ is likely to have become old-school. Currently, as I type this, I am listening to Radio 1 on my iPad.  The actual concept of a physical radio, I suspect, is already fading fast and taking the word with it.

A more modern way to enjoy the airwaves.

But don’t worry. Soon you won’t even mourn the loss of a word like ‘radio’ any more than you would consider exclaiming ‘Blimey’ or ‘Crikey’ when surprised. (Today we apparently favour the exclamation ‘Whoa’ instead.) To be honest,  I know a few of you who still insist on talking like a 1940s Cockney but you and I both know you are a dying breed.

New Words in 2018’s Scrabble Dictionary

So let’s take a look at some of those new words that have been officially recognised recently. First of all, words that have made it into 2018’s Scrabble Dictionary:

  • Ew, a useful two-letter exclamation of disgust.
  • Bestie…your new scrabble BFF.
  • Twerk…this butt-jiggling dance-move may well date back to the 1820s but surely it could never have found dictionary-status without Miley Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Awards appearance back in 2013. Moreover, being a regular verb you can also line up your scrabble tiles for ‘twerking’ and ‘twerked’ as well. Conjugate the verb to twerk….I twerk, you twerk, he/she/it twerks and so on. (Actually, I would never twerk!)
  • Qapik…this is an alternative spelling for Gapik (Azerbaijani currency), and always a good way to get rid of a bothersome Q without the corresponding U.
  • Bizjet…of course, the only way to travel with your bae and naturally refers to travel by business aeroplane or jet and highlights a growing trend for slamming two words together. (Let’s not forget that our ‘blogs’ were once ‘web logs’ but who would refer to them in those terms nowadays?! Time is money people: shorten, shorten, shorten!)

    Get rid of that Q without a U.

 

 

 

 

1,100 Additions & Alterations to the Oxford English Dictionary

What does ‘snowflake’ mean to you?

The Oxford English Dictionary is updated on a quarterly basis to keep up with our ever-changing world of words and its latest update will see an extra 1,100 additions and alterations. Alterations are words already in common parlance which have taken on an updated meaning, such as snowflake which— as I’m sure you all know —is no longer just a meteorological term but an insulting term for an overly sensitive, easily offended (young?) person.

Additions that you’ll see in the OED in 2019 include:

  • Mansplaining… when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending way…Blimey! When did that ever happen?
  • Fam…the abbreviation of family, a hip-hop term now used for close friends or members of a particular group with whom you associate (and probably a phrase that should be avoided at all costs by middle-aged women such as myself).
  • Idiocracy…a society of, or governed by, idiots (one to bookmark, methinks).
  • Hangry…being angry and hungry. A word that will definitely confuse foreign speakers, who were mashing those two words together long ago in my TEFL classes. Still, I used to be married to a man who regularly suffered from what he called PMT (or pre-meal tension) so this is one new word that resonates with me.

 

Cabin Staff or Stewardess?

It’s easy to read these lists and have a bit of a chuckle and think nothing more about the changing nature of our language but I believe it matters more than you’d think.  Recently I came across the term ‘chairman’ and just briefly that jarred in the exact same way that the term ‘chairperson’ initially did back in the late 70s. It surely doesn’t matter, we declared back then, if we speak of ‘manhole covers’ rather than ‘inspection covers’ or ‘chairmen’ instead of ‘chair persons’. What difference can these words possibly make?  But this was the 70s when ‘cabin staff’ were still ‘stewards’ and ‘stewardesses’ (think about the association in your mind that those terms conjure); it was a time when Benny Hill was deemed funny as he patted women’s bottoms and chased them in fast-motion to the Yakety Sax theme tune. Crazy, I know.

Cause or Effect?

But could the change in our language be in some way the cause of a fundamental change in our attitudes to men and women over the past 40 years, a change to the jobs they do and to what is or is not generally acceptable? Or does it merely reflect that change? Either way, it’s happening! Kleenex have announced that their ‘mansize’ tissues are to be rebranded as extra-large instead. And Waitrose are changing the name of their Gentleman’s Smoked Chicken Caesar Roll to something less gender-specific.

‘Died by suicide’ is favoured over ‘committed suicide’.

I recently came across a movement within the suicide-prevention field away from the term ‘committed suicide’. I had never thought about it before but when you do actually stop and think about it, yes: we commit crimes and atrocities. Commit therefore is a verb often associated with sinful or immoral actions. In an era where we are trying to understand what drives someone to take their own life therefore, we might start by examining the words we use and see whether or not we are subconsciously passing on a negative judgement!

Political Correctness Gone Mad?

I know many of you will be snorting derisively and tutting that ‘this is political correctness gone mad’ but I beg to differ. It may at times be incredibly subtle but ideas are subconsciously conveyed by the words we choose. George Orwell nailed it in his Newspeak, which was the official language of Oceania in the novel 1984. This language was engineered to remove even the possibility of negative or rebellious thoughts, a perfect way of controlling people. So the term ‘orthodoxy’, for example, becomes replaced by the term ‘goodthink’, the ‘thought police’ become ‘thinkpol’ and the best you can do for ‘bad’ is ‘ungood’. Just think about it! Eh? See where I’m coming from?

 

George Orwell nailed it with his ‘Newspeak’ in the novel 1984.

So, language changes. Not all language-changes matter as much as others. Many are just a product of our ever-evolving world. I say embrace it unless you truly are a 1940s Cockney! Just don’t get me started on the modern antipodean habit of ending every utterance with an upward inflection…now that really is a change too far!

What do you think? Are you more blimey than whoa? What words and expressions get your goat? (And do people even say that anymore?)

 

* Holiday generally denotes a specific event such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, whereas to a British person it purely signifies time off work!

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