“Why are people talking like that?”
I ask that question a lot, especially when I see some new linguistic trend go viral … the way the term “go viral” went viral, for instance.
The answer I get most often is: “Get over it. Language is always evolving.”
Perhaps. But the process has accelerated since the advent of social media, which introduces new mutations to the literary gene pool at a frightening rate.
Buzzwords and catchphrases used to be appear every so often, then fade gradually from our consciousness over the ensuing decades. One generation might say “keen,” another “groovy,” and another “cool” or “awesome.” We’ve always been prone to putting our own stamp on things by creating synonyms, but these days, new words appear, wear out their welcome and vanish at a dizzying pace.
Media in general, and social media in particular, have given us all immediate access to a national (or global) conversation. And this conversation has introduced us to words and phrases that, in the past, might have spread slowly or never caught on at all. Some remained confined to one region or another: Many words and phrases that “go viral” in the 21st century would have been subject to a natural geographic quarantine a few decades ago. “Y’all” has become more than a Southern affectation; and “dude” is no longer confined to the SoCal surfing culture.
Maybe that old-fashioned quarantine was a good thing. Widespread access to the internet —and social media in particular — has removed a filter that kept the language relatively stable. Now, it careens all over the place like a pinball. Buzzwords can go rolling down the black hole at the bottom of the table without warning. Or they can get stuck between two bumpers in a frenzy of repetition that tries the patience of the most dedicated arcade aficionado.
It’s not evolution so much as mutation mania. Words and phrases become so pervasive that they can go from innovation to aggravation in a matter of months — or even weeks. That’s one thing about a virus: You get sick of it damn fast.
Are you already sick of hearing words like these: woke, snowflake, (blank)splaining, mindful, bae, GOAT, cuck? I know I am. How about phrases such as “fake news”? Some words seem to have been made up out of whole cloth; others are borrowed from the existing lexicon and reformatted with new or narrower definitions. “Privilege: comes to mind.
New and redefined words appear out of nowhere and leave us scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “What the hell does that mean?” That question soon gives way to a plaintive plea as we’re bombarded with these buzzwords time and again: “Please, make it stop!”
Further frustrations stem from the fact that some of these words don’t add anything to the language. We already have words for them. You can find them in any good dictionary. But we’ve put down our dictionaries because we’re too busy creating new entries for our own personal thesaurus. We’ve become redundant pundits.
Woke? Mindful? What’s wrong with just being aware? (“Woke” is particularly galling because it appears to be a bastardization of the perfectly good adjective “awake.”) And you don’t need to talk about ’splaining when you know the meaning of condescension. Are four syllables too many for you? (Yes, I know that last remark was condescending. I’m making a point.) Once upon a time, we called fake news propaganda … or bullshit.
Then there’s "privilege," which has become pervasive in the lexicon as a pejorative term against a person’s status. Once upon a time, we denounced people’s actions and attitudes — bigotry, racism, chauvinism, etc. Now, instead of condemning them for what they do, we berate them for who they are. They’re “privileged.” But isn’t this, ironically, just another form of bigotry? Because the target’s different, it’s supposed to be OK.
Adapting words like "Nazi" and "retarded" — a la "feminazi," "Grammar Nazi" and "libtard," for example — is distasteful, to say the least.
“Snowflake” implies that it’s bad to be different. I don’t buy that: Conformity for the sake of conformity is downright dangerous. “Cuck” is just rude, and “bae” is … well, I don’t know what it is.
GOAT is a funny one. As an acronym, it’s short for “Greatest Of All Time,” and it’s become pervasive in sports commentary. But once upon a time, it meant virtually the opposite: A goat was someone who made a mistake that cost his team the game. Talk about confusing!
How many of these terms and definitions will still be in use fifty, twenty or even ten years from now? My hunch is that most of them will wear out their welcome and become fading footnotes in the evolution of the English language. That’s how evolution works, if you think about it: The vast majority of mutations aren’t helpful; they’re damaging or, at best, irrelevant.
Keep that in mind the next time someone defends the latest new buzzword on the grounds that “language is always evolving.”
Most mutations backfire. And most of these buzzwords are better off going extinct.