A couple of months ago, I received a request from a fan. I wasn’t aware that this was the sort of thing that happened to bloggers, so I’ve probably taken it more seriously than I should have done. I even did proper research – beyond the realms of Wikipedia and everything. Anyway, I found out some interesting stuff, and this is it.
The request was for me to investigate semantic drift – how the meanings of English words have changed – over the past few decades. Despite the regular cries that the Internet, Americans, “business speak” or any other scapegoat du jour are ruining the English language – arguments I’m not averse to addressing myself – evolution is an integral part of any living language, and has been going on since our hunter-gatherer ancestors first developed different grunts for “nice thing” and “scary thing”. For instance, the word “deer” was once used to refer to all types of animal; hence its similarity to the German word “Tier”, which still serves the same purpose. At some point, we clearly realised that there were many more types of “deer” than we had originally noticed, and it might be helpful to have some means of differentiating between them.
So how does this process occur today? Inevitably, many of the changes in our language are now propagated, if not actually instigated, through technology and social media. Abbreviations and memes such as “LOL”, “fail” and the latter’s more melodramatic cousin, “Epic Fail”, spread across the web like wildfire. Yet despite their common usage, even outside the typically tech-savvy, younger demographic, these are very limited as examples of semantic drift, as they have not really made the crossover into mainstream language – even their most ardent fans would be unlikely to use them in a normal conversation without a hint of irony. They are condemned to their “Internet-speak” box, doomed never to be seriously accepted as true words. This may change as a generation who grew up with the rapid-fire language of the Internet meme slowly begins to take their place in the running of the world, but for now this stigma still rules them out of this discussion.
Regardless of this, youth and technology are still prominent forces behind language change, as they always have been. The younger generation will always develop their own language in order to differentiate themselves and demonstrate their independence from their parents, and new inventions have always played a crucial role in introducing and establishing new linguistic norms, be it by way of increasing exposure to new words and meanings, as the printing press and television have done, or simply by virtue of being something new that we did not previously have the words to describe. This often leads to the introduction of new words, but sometimes we are less creative and simply choose to adapt existing terms to suit our new meanings. This is semantic drift.
Take the word “text”, for example. As a verb, it originally meant “to write in text letters” (each letter printed separately or in capitals, as opposed to flowing handwriting) – a meaning that had arguably drifted out of use a while ago. However, since the mobile phone and SMS/text messaging became integral parts of our lives, the verb “to text” now almost exclusively means “so send a written message from one phone to another via SMS” (Short Message Service, in case you were wondering). To a lesser extent, particularly in the UK, the noun “text” has also undergone a similar change, though the original meaning (simply any piece of writing) is still in perfectly healthy use in the correct context.
In fact, new forms of communication seem a common cause of semantic drift. The popularity of Twitter in recent years has also changed the way we use the verb “to tweet”. Tweeting used to be something only small birds did, but now the miracle of the Internet has widened its meaning to something we humans can do as well, as long as we have access to the Internet and don’t want to say anything more than 140 characters long. As an advocate of equal rights for all species, I welcome this wholeheartedly. Free tweeting for all! Unless you’re a dog, obviously. Then you still have to use the phone.
Moving away from the online world, we can still see the influence of youth on our language in other areas of society. Young people are always looking for new ways to describe things, and the most recent trend here is to overstate how great everything is. Awesome! Immense! Legendary! Words previously reserved for truly earth-shattering events, objects and skills are now applied to the most mundane occurrences:
“Hey Tom, are you going to Chelsea’s party tonight?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there around 9.”
There is certainly some sense in the argument that this devalues our language. If the simple act of turning up at a party when it is happening inspires awe, then how do we describe a major force of nature like Hurricane Katrina? “Devastating” is often what news reporters go for, but when the same word is used by footballers when they lose a semi-final, it loses a little of its edge.
In fact, the media and mass marketing are probably at least partly responsible for this shift. Our children now grow up in a world where everyone is jostling for their attention, forcing ideas and products down their throats. In order to sell something, you need to stand out from the competition. So if the competition has a “great new product”, yours has to be “amazing.” Then theirs becomes “unbelievable,” and so on. In the ultimate capitalist society where everyone is trying to sell something, this game of one-upmanship quickly veers towards the absurd.
Even as an Englishman who prefers understatement to overstatement, I now often find myself misusing such words in the same way. Much of this influence has filtered through in television and film, often from America, though it would be simplistic to say this was the only cause. Indeed, in many ways it has become expected of us to act – or at least speak – in this exaggerated manner in everyday life for a variety of reasons. On job applications, for example, we are encouraged to talk up our skills and experience in order to ensure that we stand out from other candidates. Of course, when everyone else does the same thing, the point becomes moot, but it also means that promoting one’s abilities in realistic terms is even more certain to fail. We are given no choice – the shift has already taken place.
On a related note, I’d like to dedicate a final thought to the word “literally”. Once used to indicate something slightly implausible that did actually happen (“The table literally broke in two when I hit it”), it has for years suffered abuse from people simply using it for figurative emphasis: “I literally exploded with rage”; “It literally came out of nowhere.” Now, after years of struggling valiantly, it has finally given up the battle; this year the Oxford English Dictionary – still seen as the benchmark for accepted use of modern British English despite its eccentricities – added the new meaning, which is “used for emphasis while not being literally true”.
In terms of modern semantic drift, so often steered by wider societal circumstance, this is unusual. The new meaning does not cover any new situation or action for which we needed a new term. It is not driven by technology, nor is it a particularly “cool” word, though it is easy to imagine that over-excited teenagers are at least partly responsible for its widespread (mis)use. It has simply suffered a case of mistaken identity so often that people have come to accept that it means something it never really did.
How to use the word “literally”: the Vikings had it right
Yet in a way, this is perhaps the best example of the nature of semantic change. Much though language can be affected by groups or individuals, it cannot be changed by sheer force of will. New meanings develop over time and take on a life of their own, gradually snowballing acceptance until it seems like they always existed. Language is something organic that belongs to all of us, evolving to suit our needs as society itself changes. For better or worse, we just have to live with it.