by Barbara von Diether, MEd, EdD
Thesis and Dissertation Writing Coach, Thesis and Dissertation Editor, Scholarly and Academic Writing Consultant
Following are some observations about the nature of our language and how it is changing. Here is a sentence containing several examples of language evolution.
“If u google ‘laser’ and interface that def with the tangebalized results we already have we can nuke the veggies:)”
The above sentence contains several ways our language is changing: a new spelling (u), a noun converted to a verb (google), a compound (interface), one abbreviation (def), an adjective that has been turned into a verb (tangibalized), an abbreviation that has become a word (nuke), slang (veggies), and a new punctuation mark — :).
But then, our language has been changing from the first grunt. Try this:
“She was a worthy womman al hir lyve, housbondes at chirche-dore she hadde fyve, wuthouten other companye in youthe, but thereof nedeth nat to speke as nouthe.”
Chaucer wrote this verse, but that is about how Christopher Columbus spoke and wrote a few years after Chaucer’s death in 1400.
How about “Got milk?” Or “I axed her.” Neither Chaucer nor Columbus would have understood. The first is a grammatical mistake, and the second is a mispronunciation of “asked,” which is now creeping into the written language as “axed.” Whether these current usage examples become permanent has not yet been decided, but then, who ever thought “9/11” would come to mean anything other than September 11, and a toilet plunger would ever be called a “hydro blast force cup” (US Army).
Here are some ways the language is changing, and some of them will become permanent, if they haven’t already.
The Use of Pompous or Ambiguous Jargon.
AT&T used the lofty “customer input/output access facility” to describe their complaint windows. The White House called the Granada invasion a “pre-dawn vertical insertion.” We like to pick on the Pentagon because they are so creative. When they say “neutralize the adversary in an expedient fashion” they mean shoot first, dude. The Pentagon refers to combat as “violence processing,” and “permanent pre-hostilities” means peace, brother. “Collateral damage” means killing our allies by accident.
But let us not forget business and industry. Shell Oil called their gas station attendants “hydro carbon transfer specialists,” and there aren’t any janitors any more because they are all called maintenance engineers (and there isn’t an engineering degree among the lot). Most companies don’t have mail rooms, they have Document Distribution Centers. Sales men and women are the oh-so correct “associates,” which avoids gender identification, but it sounds like they own part of the business. Maybe that’s the point.
The Compression of Words into Acronyms and Abbreviation.
Does anyone remember what scuba means? We don’t bother to capitalize it, but it means Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. How about “laser?” It means Light Amplification through Stimulated Emission of Radiation. The ZIP in zip code means Zoned Improvement Program, and POSH mean “port out, starboard back,” which are the best staterooms on a ship.
If we start to put compressions together, we find sentences like this one from Amoco Oil. “To access GPNU2, @ADD the source file TEXDIS*TEMPLATES.GPNU2 while in PARSD.” Excuse me? And from Northrop Aviation we find this procedure: “The program was loaded onto the CMS and compiled with Fortran Compliers rs(FORTUS), GICFTG, and H Extended (FHX).
The Epidemic of Slang
Slang is so prevalent that people do not realize they are using it. “Reoccurance” is not a word, nor is its more famous cousin “irregardless.” I have heard people in high-class business meetings say “guestimate” with a straight face, and “evergreen” to mean up-to-date or continuously improved.
In everyday language, we hear other slang words such as “bummer,” “framistant,” “diddlysquat,” cockamayme,” “disambiguate,” and, of course “veggies”, which is what “vegans” eat. How about “sup” meaning “What’s up?” LOL has now hit the verbal language.
Compounding Words into New Words
Compounding starts when two words are used so frequently together that they become hyphenated. After a few years of hyphenation, the hyphen is removed and a new word hits the street. “Down time” became “down-time” and now it’s “downtime.” There are endless combinations: “greenmail,” “meltdown,” “airhead,” “proactive,” and “ripoff,” to name a very few.
We like to put “mega” in front of almost any word: “megabucks,” “megatrend,” “megastar,” “megabyte,” and “megamillionaire.” We also put “ultra” in front of words: “ultralite,” “ultrafine,” or “ultrasuede,” and we stick “anti” anywhere at all: “antiterrorist,” “antidiscrimination,” “antiwar,” “antimarriage,” etc.
Lastly, we like to stick “out” on the end of many self-respecting words: “far out,” make out,” “veg out,” “pig out,” “freak out,” “burned out,” “cop out,” “zoned out,” “grossed out,” and “chill out,” to name a few. Some of these will become hyphenated, then one word over time.
New Definitions for Old Words, and New Foreign Words
It all depends on how you say it: “bad” if you mean bad, and “baaad” if you mean good. “Anchor” used to stop ships, “wired” meant wiring in a house or elsewhere, “heavy” used to mean it weighs a lot, and “trash” meant something you put out on the curb. “Meat market” did not mean a place to meet “hook up,” “stoned” was a medieval form of execution still practiced today in some third-world countries, and “crunch” was what Rice Krispies did. “Cool” meant a temperature.
We are ingesting foreign words at a record pace. Anything on the menu at a Mexican restaurant is a new American word, “glitch” is a German word, and “skoosh” is a Japanese word. Globalization, over the next 1,000 years, will have us all speaking the same language.
The Conversation of Nouns and Adjectives into Verbs
“We will status the drawings tomorrow” (Bectel).
“He inferfaces well with clients” (IBM).
“During phase 2 we will reorientate the program (Boeing Aircraft).
“The power line was built secludedly to please landowners” (US Forest Service).
All of these sentences were drawn from actual documents used in writing workshops. Also, there is “We Pofessionalize in Damage-Free Towing” on the side of a truck, “This report will definitize an answer” from Martin Marrieta, and “Routinization has begun” from ARCO Oil. “Ruggedized” means heavy duty reinforcement at the BLM, and from Cameron Iron Works: “That whole program should be absoluted.” Brilliant.
If you are “living under the bridge” you live south of the Mackinaw River Bridge, and if you want a big sandwich, you have to know what to ask for: a “wimpie” in the northeast, a “hoagie” in Philadelphia, a “submarine” in New York, a “po boy” in Louisiana, a “hero” in the southwest, and a “blimpie” in San Francisco. If you are “makin’ groceries” in Louisiana you have gone to the store, and depending on where you are you will either be killed for calling somebody a “coon ass” or you will be congratulated for recognizing a really nice guy. Getting a soft drink can be challenging, depending on where you are. In some parts of the county, “coke” means anything cold, after which you must specify which cold drink you want, and then there is “fiz,” “soda,” “pop,” and “soda pop.”
The Invention of Idioms
“It blew my mind that you were chewing the fat and shooting the bull with that hacker. But lay it on me, because if you want to be off the wall and spend an arm and a leg on getting buffed out let me water the horse and I’ll join you.”
That sentence is comprised entirely of idioms. In business, people “massage the numbers” and get “up to speed.” In the trucking industry if someone says their coffee has been “saucered and blowed” it means it’s ready to drink. In the government they talk about “revenue enhancement,” which means they are going to raise our taxes.
In 1942 Eric Partridge in his book, Usage and Abusage,” said, “The field of language is strewn with the dry bones of adventurous words which once started out with a paternal blessing to make their fortune, but which have met with an untimely end and serve only, when collected, to fill the shelves of a lexicographical museum.”
Changes in the verbal language occur with breathtaking speed. Some of that language, if it sticks around long enough and is used frequently enough, is eventually used in the written language. Some make it into the dictionaries. However, just because a word makes it into a dictionary, does not mean it will stay there! Old words fly off the pages, and unused words fly after them. Dictionaries evolve, just as the language evolves. The wary keep a 1932 copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica on their shelves because it has scholarly articles instead of definitions like modern encyclopedias, which are expanded dictionaries with plenty of color pictures, and toss out last year’s dictionary with last year’s phone book.
Writers in business, industry, and government, at the management level and above, should beware of using words that might detract from their professional countenance. The misuse of word can lead to ridicule among associates and distract attention from a good education and excellent talents.