Sunday, January 26, 2020

Language defacement

Shakespeare, among others, is famous for inventing new words, such as bedazzled and addiction. As historically interesting this process of creation is, it is less significant than the process of hijacking existing words and applying them to new contexts to the point that the original meaning becomes an historical fact in itself and an archaic use of old or dead writers. Two examples are the word gay, which used to only mean “happy”, and pryck, which was a sharp pole placed in the corner of field to mark ownership. In the last few decades, the most important driving force behind this piracy is the Internet. It is hard to remember when the words mouse, boot, cookie and worm brought up images of items on a child’s exploration of a field.

Due to its mass use, including by people who don’t actually use a desk computer, Facebook is slowly but surely shaping the connotations of countless terms, both nouns and verbs. Once, a page was clearly a solid white piece of paper (that had to be typed in my day). Nowadays, if someone writes on a page, it is probably on Facebook. English always distinguished between acquaintances and friends, but now you have to say a “personal friend” to ensure understanding of a flesh-and-blood connection. Shame used to be in the context of failing to live up to some expectation, generally in the family.  Shaming now brings up thought of malicious and ugly messages intended to make someone’s life miserable.

The verbs have really been hit by a storm. Posting meant putting a letter in the mailbox. I imagine that such an image is rather strange to anybody under 30. Similarly, liking people often assumed at least having seen them.  This is no longer true. For that matter, sharing was what children had to do with their toys when they were small (generally against their will).  Likewise, reacting required some unusual action, physical and/or verbal, to some stimulus. I doubt how much adrenalin actually flows when people react to my posts.

To clarify, I am not Don Quixote fighting the windmill. I accept, albeit not always with joy, the inevitable dynamics of language. Every generation is shaped by different forces, which forces the shapes of its languages. Granted, it makes it hard for grandparents to understand their grandchildren but that has already been difficult for many generations. Still, I suffer from nostalgia for the time when everybody understood each other, even if that was an illusion linguistically. In the meantime, I spent the weekend watching a party, i.e. attending an event of my wife’s family, pictures and video of which will not be posted in Facebook. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, what’s next?

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