"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Top 10 Words That Are Changing Meaning

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Top 10 Words That Are Changing Meaning

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Semantic shift (as professional linguists call change in the meaning of words) often takes several forms, ranging from constriction to expansion to outright departure.  Before our very eyes, many English words have changed or are changing their conventional meanings. I identify below what I consider some of the most noteworthy semantic shifts of the last few decades.

1. “Occupy.” Thanks to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement—and its various local and national domestications, such as “Occupy Nigeria”—the dominant denotative associations that this word evokes will change—or is changing. Before the “Occupy” Movement, when we encountered the word “occupy” we thought of the following: living in a certain place (as in, occupy a house), being busy with something (as in, he occupies himself with collecting flowers), consuming one’s attention (as in, the plight of the poor occupies his mind all the time), etc. 

Now, occupy also means to forcefully protest against capitalist excesses, inequality, corruption, etc. Interestingly, the Occupy Movement has merely resuscitated the original meaning of “occupy,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. “The very first meaning of ‘occupy’ in English was, following the Norman Conquest, ‘to take possession of; to seize’,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. The current, expanded meaning of “Occupy” was the first runner-up to the Oxford Dictionary’s 2011 word of the year.

2. “Aggravating.” Aggravate means to get worse. That’s the meaning many prestigious dictionaries privilege. In popular usage, however, it means to annoy. “Aggravating” therefore means “annoying,” not “making worse.” Lexicographers have not fully caught up with this semantic shift and grammarians are up in arms against this “unacceptable distortion” of the “real” meaning of the word. In my news writing classes, for instance, I am required to discourage students from using “aggravating” as a synonym for “irritating.” But the descriptivist grammarian in me often compels me to tell my students that in the near future their usage would become the new standard that dictionaries would privilege and that grammarians would jealously protect. That’s the nature of semantic change in all progressive languages.

3. “Hysterical.” Hysteria is chiefly a psychoanalytic term that means the state of violent mental agitation. It’s also understood in popular usage to mean excessive or uncontrolled fear.  But the word now means “very funny.” People who protest this semantic change should remember that hysteria originally meant a woman’s womb.

4. “Ridiculous.” It used to primarily mean absurdly funny. Now it also means unacceptable. People mostly use it in moments of anger, as in: “The teacher gave me a C in spite of all the effort I put into writing that paper. That’s ridiculous!” People also now call people “ridiculous” instead of saying they are annoying or stupid. I prognosticate that in the next few decades, no dictionary would list “funny” as the meaning of “ridiculous,” except, perhaps, in their etymological notes, that is, in notes on the history of the meaning of the word.

5. “Aggressive.” This used to be a bad word. It was an adjective of disapproval to describe people who were belligerent and coarse and violent. But in the last 20 or so years, the word has acquired a positive connotation, thanks to business English. It now mostly means having or showing determination and energetic pursuit of your ends, as in: “"an aggressive businessman"; "an aggressive basketball player"; "he was aggressive and imperious; positive in his convictions"; "aggressive go-getter." It’s a case of a bad word gone good.

6. “Literally.” This word conventionally means “exactly,” not figurative (as in: when I said I would slap him, I meant it literally). It also used to emphasize the truth of something that sounds incredible, as in: Literally millions of people from all corners of the world converge in one place during the Hajj. Then, over the years, an informal usage of the word emerged that turned its meaning upside down. It no longer exclusively means “exactly”; it now also means figuratively, hitherto its antonym, i.e., opposite word. Sentences like “The courts literally slapped us with thousands of dollars in fine,”  “the comedian was so funny he literally killed me” (hmm…if he literally killed you why are you alive to tell the story?) became commonplace. In both Britain and America, young people now use “literally” as an intensifier (i.e., a meaningless word that merely heightens the meaning of other words). It has taken the place of “really.” Many grammarians still object to this usage.

7. “Insanely.” Most modern dictionaries define this word as "crazily." It is derived from “insane,” which means crazy, mentally unstable. But contemporary usage in the UK and the US is moving towards using the word as a synonym for “extremely” as in: “I am insanely busy.” Interestingly, both “crazy” and “insane” are also shifting meanings among young people in America and Britain. The words now usually mean unbelievable or unreal, as in: “she divorced her husband after only one week of marriage? That’s crazy/insane!”

8. “Booty.” [Pronounced something like /buudi/] This word used to exclusively mean loot, that is, money or goods obtained illegally, especially in times of war. The word is often metaphorically extended to mean something gained or won. This has been the primary denotation of the word since Middle English, that is, from 1100 to 1450. But thanks to African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), otherwise known as Ebonics, this term now also means buttocks, especially a woman’s buttocks. Young Britons also use the term to denote buttocks.

Popular derivatives of this term are “bootylicious” (which means sexually attractive), “booty call” (which means sexual rendezvous). Although these terms entered mainstream American conversational English in the 1990s, the 2010 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English says the expression “shake one’s booty” (which means to dance energetically) has existed in American English since the 1920s. The dictionary suggests that booty was probably initially an alternative spelling of “botty,” a child’s word for buttocks in British English.

9. “Like.” This word has acquired an additional meaning as a fancy but basically meaningless hesitation filler. This semantic extension first started as American youth-speak, then graduated to an informal Americanism, and has now percolated into the informal English of almost all of the world’s English varieties. It has replaced “you know” as the hesitation filler of choice in conversational English. Sometimes, people combine “you know” and “like” in one sentence, as in: "I thought for a second there was, like, you know, a story or something, but every shot is like only a second long." 

Over the last few years, “was like” or “is like” has also come to function as a synonym for “said” or “says,” as in: “I saw him standing there and I was like: ‘what’s your name? And he was like: John. And I was like: cool. And he was like: yeah.” This usage drives me crazy. It makes me want to smack someone’s mouth!

10. “Gay.” When I was news editor of Weekly Trust in 2001, we cast a back-page headline that read: “ABU Goes Gay for NUGA.”  (NUGA stands for Nigerian Universities Games Association). The following day, we were bombarded with a barrage of angry phone calls and emails from readers. Gay evoked associations with homosexuality in our readers’ minds. 

But “gay” used to mean “happy,” “lively,” “carefree,” or “bright and showy.” That was the meaning we had in mind when we cast the headline. Plus, we were seduced by the alliterative effect of the “g” sound in “goes,” “gay” and “NUGA.” We were obviously behind the times. Most modern dictionaries now describe our meaning of the word as “dated,” i.e., out of fashion. It is noteworthy that when it first appeared in English in the 1600s “gay” was associated with “immorality.” Then it changed meaning to “happy, lively, carefree,” etc. Now its predominant association is with homosexuality. 

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