Change in the Meaning of Words Demands Care in the Use of Language

We know that words change all the time and over time, a process language experts describe as "semantic shift," semantics being the field of language concerned with meaning. Even if we may not recognize it, such change in meaning is all around us, influenced by social, political, religious, economic and technological forces. Many words we use every day meant something quite different 10, 100 or 1,000 years ago.

There is some predictability in the way words change over time. For example, words can expand in meaning, that is, come to signify a larger group. The word "pimp" once referred to a man who sold the sexual favors of women for money. It now refers to anyone who leads a lavish, ostentatious lifestyle exemplified by fancy cars, clothes, jewelry and women. There is even a TV reality show dedicated to the transformation of junky cars into custom masterpieces. Its title is "Pimp My Ride."

"Pimp" turns out to be one of an endless number of outlaw words that have evolved toward more common and respectable use. The world of illegal drugs and addiction provides many examples, from Cole Porter's "I get a kick out of you," to "Get your kicks on Route 66," to John Denver's "Rocky Mountain high." Athletes "talk smack," a reference to heroin. Words like jazz, juke, shake, punk and rock ‘n' roll all had sexual connotations that were muted as they worked their way into mainstream culture.

But just as a word like "pimp" has widened in its reference, so "girl" has narrowed. In the 14th century, "girl" could refer to a young person of either gender and evolved to denote only young females. (Male children were called "knave girls"; females were called "gay girls.") And "gay," of course, has narrowed from anything bright and merry -- "A gay time will be had by all!" -- to a synonym for the cultural expressions of homosexuality.

Some words become more pejorative over time, meaning, they denote something worse, more negative than they once did. The word "dame" was a popular synonym for "woman" even into the 1960s, but is hardly used anymore except as an honorary title for a British actress: Dame Judith Dench. In many cases, the word "dame" was seen as "vulgar," that is, coming from the lower classes. But it was also widely considered a compliment, as in such phrases as "gorgeous dame" or "classy dame," a set of meanings conveyed in the "South Pacific" showstopper "There is nothin' like a dame .… There is nothin' you can name, that is anythin' like a dame."

Then there are those words that have ameliorated, or, evolved to express better, more socially acceptable meanings. Another way to say this is that they have become more tolerated as a result of wider use over time. For a while, angry people on television were "ticked off" until they were allowed to be "pissed off," a verbal phrase that has almost nothing to do with urination.

I remember a survey from the 1970s in which the word "suck" was judged, by both men and women, to be among the most offensive in the English language. If it was a straw being sucked you were OK, but in many cases it referred to oral sex between men, a homophobic insult that could be used in a variety of forms, from "you suck" to "this sucks" to the more specific "your writing really sucks." The word has softened, to the point where you can hear it on radio talk shows or from the rafters of professional sporting events. Even popular songs, sung by the likes of Kelly Clarkson, have "suck" in the title.

The sexual meaning has often moved from denotation to connotation, and in some cases, has disappeared completely. The late Sen. Daniel Moynihan would no doubt argue, as he did in a scholarly essay,  "Defining Deviancy Down," that the definition of "deviance" changes over time, that what was unacceptable in one century can become commonplace in another. An oppressive society will find too much language deviant from acceptable norms. A reckless society may find too little behavior deviant -- with bad consequences to the common good.

Another example of the movement toward respectability comes from the history of the word "enthusiasm." The word comes from the Greek and means essentially to "have God in you." And who would object to being described as an enthusiastic teacher or student, worker or parent? But what is complimentary now was once an adjective meaning "overzealous." By the late 19th century, the word had taken on mostly positive meanings, captured in this definition by the Oxford English Dictionary: "Rapturous intensity of feeling in favour of a person, principle, cause; passionate eagerness in any pursuit, proceeding from an intense conviction of the worthiness of the object."

But the great dictionary also remembers an earlier, negative meaning more common in the 18th century: "Ill-regulated or misdirected religious emotion, extravagance of religious speculation." So a virtue now possessed by soccer moms and dads was once, at the time of the nation's founding, a vice that described the behavior of religious fanatics.

These reflections are not mere historical curiosities. They are crucial to writers' understanding of politics and culture. Words are often weapons in culture wars wielded by ideologues to gain the high ground in argument, debate, policy and propaganda. In the post-Reagan era, conservative politicians worked to redefine the word "liberal" so that it moved from a neutral to a negative meaning. So the warring sides in the abortion debate see words like "choice" or "life" as positive or negative, depending upon their positions. Or, as has often been noted in describing the violent politics of the Middle East: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

I remember when being in the "mainstream" meant something good: "The prevailing current of thought, influence or activity." Used as an adjective to describe the news media, "mainstream" has taken on a somewhat pejorative connotation, especially when employed by critics from the right or left.

I know many young people with intense interest in technology who refer to themselves with pride as "computer geeks," even though some might use the term in the pejorative: "What a geek!"

Long lost is the origin of the word, born in the circus culture that dominated popular entertainment in the 19th century. The American Heritage Dictionary informs us that the word "geek" originated with the circus sideshow: "a performer who engaged in bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken." Feel free to have fun with that knowledge at your next office party.

Exercise: Look up the following words for signs of "semantic shift": funk, gender, knockout, gremlin, grieve, gung ho, oriental, dumb, dude, hornswoggle. Share what you learn with a friend.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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