by Kate McLelland
It all started when I overheard a discussion between a group of young friends in their twenties as they googled for an app, then uploaded a blog. It struck me that someone who had been on a desert island since the 1980s would have absolutely no idea what they were talking about.
The islander would not only puzzle over the plethora of new words that have appeared since that time: he or she might also be confused to find that some words have entirely changed their meaning. For instance, “sad” was once exclusively used to describe someone who was unhappy, but now it also means pathetic.
Other words that have enjoyed a similar meaning makeover include “wicked”. Up to the late ‘80s it meant very bad, but after that time it became a slang term for very good. Nowadays young people use words like “sick” or “ape” to express approval.
“Nice” and “silly” have undergone a similar transformation. “Nice” was derived from the Latin word nescius (meaning ignorant) but by the 14th century it had begun to mean foolish or simple. In the 18th century its usage changed again, coming close to our modern meaning.
“Silly” originally meant worthy, or blessed, but the word became associated with the poor and vulnerable and was eventually subverted to mean weak or foolish.
Actions speak louder …?
Even words describing precise actions can be subject to change.
In the Tudor age, to “flirt” was to make a brisk or jerky movement. Somehow that became connected with the idea of playing with a person’s emotions and the concept of “flirting” as we know it was born.
“Decimation” is a word that comes from the brutal ancient Roman practice of killing one man in ten to inspire fear and loyalty amongst any legions that went AWOL or failed to fight effectively. It now means to kill or destroy a large proportion of a group or population.
An ever-expanding dictionary
The digital age has seen a huge increase in the number of new words being generated and the process of their adoption has accelerated, too. Previously Oxford University Press (OUP) took two to three years before it considered adding a word to the Oxford English Dictionary, but nowadays their web collection of words is updated every three months.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the way the English language is evolving and many blame the USA for exporting expressions such as “to google” (created to describe an internet search). But anyone who makes a complaint about language nowadays should be aware that they are part of a long tradition. Sir John Cheke (1514-1557) was a classical scholar who objected to Greek words such as “chaos” and “specimen” being added to our English vocabulary. He wrote: “I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges”.
Professor Anne Curzan, an American historian of the English Language, relishes all new linguistic developments, especially portmanteau words (such as “shopaholic”) that combine two existing words to create a new word with a single meaning. If he were alive today, I have no doubt that John Cheke would disapprove. But perhaps he – and everyone else who seeks to stop language from evolving – should just … chillax.