Linguistic Change

rogersgeorge on January 30th, 2017

I don’t know how many of the kid’s words will stick around, but this strip, The Buckets, by Greg Cravens, is a good example of how language changes. In this case, the language change is because of changes to the culture. (Some changes come from the introduction of new words from other languages, such as amigo (from Spanish) and sundae (from Sanskrit).)

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Newest “Cool” Word

rogersgeorge on October 31st, 2016

A short post today—after all, it’s a holiday, right? The language is changing all the time. here’s the latest, from Boomerangs:


I guess it’s not too surprising a change…

Pop-Culture Linguistic Change

rogersgeorge on August 9th, 2016

English doesn’t have a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun. (“It” is neuter, not neutral.) There’s a movement afoot to create one, I think. This particular manifestation of the movement, from the comic Boomerangs, is new to me:


I seem to recall “thon” offered as a gender-neutral term several years back, but haven’t seen it since. I predict we’re not going to get a new word.  Back when women’s lib was a new movement, there was a push to use the slightly awkward “he or she” and “him or her” to replace the generic “he” and “him,” and that has become the most common approach to this challenge. I think that’s a reasonable solution, we’ll get used to it, and things will settle down.

What’s your opinion? Don’t be too hard on me for using the term “pop culture.”

A Vocabulary Lesson

rogersgeorge on April 23rd, 2016

Language changes over time. A foreigner visits and introduces a new concept, bringing that word with it. Schadenfreude is a recent one from Germany, meaning the joy you feel when someone you don’t like suffers a misfortune. Perhaps the closest we have in English is “Serves him right!”

Another cause of linguistic change is cultural change. People think of new things, and we need words for them. I want to share a few of these with you today. I got them from a fun article in the March 2016 Scientific American, page 73, Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column. If you can lay hands on the magazine, read it. It’s a pretty good article. Here are the new words:

trigger warning–alerting someone that they might be about to encounter something that might upset them

microagression–saying something that only hints that you are inferior

cultural appropriation–imitating behavior of a group (culture) that you aren’t part of

disinvitation–withdrawing an invitation, particularly a public one

safe space–a place to go when you’re upset

The definitions are more or less mine; Shermer’s article addressed these issues in the context of an academic environment, and I made them a bit more general. Perhaps you can improve on them. Send me a note.

PS—I stay out of politics on this site, but Glen McCoy’s editorial cartoon below is too good an illustration of these vocabulary items to pass up. I also like that the little girl got her apostrophes right.


Linguistic change

rogersgeorge on January 26th, 2014

This comic,um, literally addresses an issue I mentioned not so long ago, so I won’t go into that. It also addresses another issue–linguistic change. As a technical writer, I am tempted to wish that language didn’t change. Eliminating the ambiguity of having new meanings for words would certainly make it easier to be understood. I think this is the rationale for the French Academy, which is infamous for its insistence that the French language not change.

But language has to change over time. After all, the world changes over time. New ideas mean neologisms (and if you know what neologism means, I don’t need to explain this to you). A principle in linguistics is that all languages are sufficient. That is, for their environment. A corollary of this is that when something new comes along, we make or borrow a word for it.

Language also changes for less justifiable reasons, and that’s what makes me roll my curmudgeonly eyes.

Let’s look at the comic, from January 17, 2014:

Basic InstructionsDefinition creep is a neologism, by the way, derived perhaps, from “scope creep,” a term you hear too often in software development circles. The comic dances around the point, dear to my heart, that if you mush around the meanings, you can lose the use of perfectly good words. If if “literal” and “figurative” both mean “figurative,” how can you say that something is literal? Here’s another example: nauseous means “making one want to throw up,” and nauseated means feeling like throwing up. Both ideas are useful (in the right context), so don’t make both words mean the same thing.

We’re going to lose a lot of these battles, but I recommend that when you write, you exercise care to use the right word. In fact, here’s some evidence that we’re going to lose the nauseous/nauseated battle. The character speaking in the center panel is one of the intellectuals in the Luann Strip (Nov 9, 1998).


On the other hand, perhaps Greg Evans has already gone over to the dark side. This one is from 1992.


One last comment: Note that the guy on the left in Basic Instructions said “…in a recent dictionary.” It’s been a running battle in the lexicographical world whether dictionaries should prescribe the “correct” meaning, or merely describe what people are saying, without casting judgement. Currently the trend is toward being merely descriptive. Alas.