Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Fast-Moving English

Jason Kottke recently pointed to an Inside Higher Ed blog post by a University of Texas history professor about how rapidly the English language is changing these days.

It's not a prescriptivist rant. The writer descriptively lists a number of ways things changed in the past, and then even more ways things have been changing recently, positing that we may be experiencing the biggest shift since the 15th, 16th and early 17th century. It's worth a read.

The part that snagged my attention the most were his paragraphs of examples of specialized vocabulary words that have made the leap to the mainstream. As a person who takes in a lot of different kinds of media and generally "keeps up," I like to think I'm aware of much of what's happening (except in sports, admittedly). So I was surprised by the terms he included as common that I had never heard before. I also noticed some that I have clear recollections of when I first heard or saw them used.

One major source of the changes is words that come from specialized areas, usually ones with economic or social power.

For business-speak, he listed phrases or words like “return on investment,” “best practices,” “move the needle,” “leverage,” “bleeding edge,” were all familiar, though I would argue that bleeding edge is really a tech term. Ones that he included as common that I've heard but wouldn't say are common in everyday speech: “blue sky thinking,” “boil the ocean” (I've barely heard this), and “core competency.” I've never heard the phrase “tiger team” used and have no idea what that is. And he says “hard stop,” “trim the fat,” and “reinvent the wheel” come from business speak. I would like to verify that from the OED or another source before I believe it.

Finance as a subset of business, he said, has brought us “acid test,” “burn rate,” “Chinese wall,” “golden handcuffs” or “golden parachute,” “moral hazard,” “plain vanilla,” and the initialism “ROI.” Moral hazard? I think not. And obviously, finance didn't create the phrases acid test or Chinese wall, either, but it did perhaps create the particular meanings that are being used for them now.

On his list of techno-speak buzzwords there were terms I know and acknowledge have become pretty widely used, like “A/B testing,” “content curation,” or AI. But I hesitate to use most of the terms except on Twitter, or if I'm work with tech people because I think most people don't know them: CRM, UX, “backend,” “breadcrumbs,” “dark web,” “sandboxing” and “wireframe.” There were a couple terms he threw out that I don't know: ERP and SAAS. (I remember many years ago hearing an NPR sponsor spot for SAP and wondering what the heck it was. I still don't know, since no one ever bothers to explain.) I only recently learned about “minimal viable product,” which of course has the confusing initialism MVP.

Then there are pop psychology terms like “acting out,” “addicted,” “bipolar,” “borderline,” “closure,” “co-dependent,” “delusional,” “dysfunctional,” “empowerment,” “mindfulness,” “reptilian brain,” “self-actualization,” “self-medicating,” “trauma” and “vent.” Vent as a verb? Is that really new? Not according to etymonline. https://www.etymonline.com/word/vent (Remember vent your spleen?)

Journalists are a font of catchphrases and neologisms, some of which come from sports. “A-game” and “GOAT” are two that he lists. I remember when I first saw GOAT (on Twitter) and it seemed like an insult, but I could tell from the context that it wasn't. It took me a while to figure it out.

Personally, I object to the introduction of marketese into regular usage, but I know I'm swimming upstream, and it . One example is regular people saying their going to a "meet and greet" with an author or a politician, when that was insider/handler terminology.

It's sure a fun time to be alive if you like to see language prescriptivists get bent out of shape!

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