Have you ever listened to the words and sentences used by people around you and thought, “I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about”?
This is nothing to worry about. It is, on the contrary, a good thing. It shows you can think for yourself. It shows you have taken a stand on semantic change.
The process of semantic change (words taking on new meanings) happens in one of three ways. The first two are linked. Either the speaker (or writer) doesn’t understand the words he or she is using, or the listener/reader doesn’t understand what is meant. In both cases, through repeat usage the changes spread.
The third way is that people just unilaterally decide to apply a new meaning to an existing word.
No matter how the change comes about, the result is always that two meanings of one word coexist for a while. One group of people, usually delineated by age, believe a word means one thing. Others, the young, adopt a new meaning.
Ask yourself what “epic” means. If you think your friend’s new shoes are epic, then you have accepted that word’s semantic change. Do you refer to people you don’t know as “randoms”? Are your new Yeezys “sick”? You haven’t yet found the point where you have a problem with the semantic changes those terms have undergone.
But those who might say they’ve met an “epic randomer” will themselves, one day, complain that they don’t understand what is being said. New meanings will have been taken up. In a decade’s time, a “decade” might mean 10 minutes. Disgusting might mean good, horrible might mean handsome.
Semantic change constantly rolls on to affect different words. We’ve all experienced this. I wouldn’t say a lady wiping her face is “at her toilet”, or that a key is “fast in the lock” when it won’t move. But not long ago these terms were widely used.
Eventually, we all grouse: “That’s not what we called it in my day”. That’s when you know you’ve taken a stand on the changes in our language. At that point, you aren’t following the herd. You are thinking for yourself. You have decided what you believe is right and wrong.
One day, another devilishly handsome, slim, young chap will be filling his column in The CyberCourier with complaints that sick things ain’t not wot they useter be. The randomers’ Gucci language in Tomorrowland will hardly be worth saving.
Word of the week
A group, set, or series of eleven things. EG: “Every day I have a hendecad of new complaints about English usage.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org