Sunday, June 22, 2008

Perfectly Good Words

I have totally been feeling too randomly lazy to update the past few days. I have literally not had the energy to lift my hands to a keyboard. 'Oh my God', I hear you say; 'why has this totally awesome blogger, like, stopped blogging?' and I'm so like 'um, here's some shit I started writing ages ago because I really can't be bothered comparing Unless and American Pastoral like I was totally planning to do.' So the point of today's post (which is more linguistics than literature, but it's vaguely relevant) is that the semantic shift of modern language has led to what is known as 'lexical gaps', which is the phrase used when there is no word in a language to describe a certain concept. However, my knowledge of linguistics is a little sketchy/amateur, so don't quote me on this.

The words are:
Awesome: the former meaning of this word used to be something similar to 'awe-inspiring'. Now it just means 'great', 'cool', or a slightly superlative form of those or similar phrases. This irritates me no end because there are already a few ways to express this concept of coolness, but there is now no real way to express the feeling of awe that is brought on by something that is so amazing. 'awe-inspiring' is too unwieldy, long and compounded, but 'awesome' only retains its former meaning in certain contexts, such as 'the awesome power of nature'.

Totally: used to mean 'completely', except somehow it had connotations of being even more complete than completely, if that makes sense. Now it doesn't really mean anything, it's just a silly little word inserted into a sentence with no real semantic purpose,a s in the sentence 'I am totally pumped'. Which not only means that a new lexical gap has been created, but that the semantic shift was unnecessary and we have lost the ability to describe a perfectly good concept for no real purpose whatsoever.

Random: probably annoys me even more than the others because it's much harder to find a synonym for. Looking at The Free Dictionary's list of synonyms there is no word which comes close to encompassing all of the marvellous connotations of the word 'random'. Each word on that list only describes one of the facets, or connotations, of this tremendously varied and useful word.

Oh my God: it used to be shocking, because it was 'taking the lord's name in vain' (gasp!) but now it's just become jaded. What do you say now when you're really shocked? 'goodness gracious'? I think not.

Literally: no longer means the thing that is actually written down on the paper, or that is physically occurring, but is just used to add emphasis. In this way, the phrase 'it's literally raining cats and dogs!' doesn't mean that cats and dogs are actually falling from the sky, but that it's raining really, really hard.

One could argue that with all of these examples, it is still possible to use them in their former contexts, but I would argue in return that they will (at least in this era) still be 'tainted' (if I can be permitted such a lingustically-incorrect term) with the connotations that pop culture has given them. If I used the word 'random' in an essay - unless I am extremely careful - I would be laughed out of town.

Lastly, I'm really trying hard not to be prescriptive here. I understand, nay, I believe, that semantic shift happens, that language adapts and changes, and that that's not a bad thing but a fact of life. I'm just registering the fact that, as someone who writes (and not even fiction! Just anything, from book reviews to acrostic poems to instruction manuals), there are a few concepts out there that I can't really use any more without them meaning something different to my intention. Yes, writers have to adapt to that and take it into account, but oh - I just want to talk about stuff clearly and succinctly. Ooh, look! I just used another: 'stuff'. Think of Lady Macbeth's 'Oh, proper stuff!' the stuff of dreams, the stuff of life itself. It doesn't work like that any more.

I'm also aware that this sort of things has been happening for years - centuries! And will continue to happen whatever anyone does. The only thing that endures is change. I'm curious: will the knowledge of these concepts eventually die out as the generations who remember their former use die? Will they become words that must be thought about when read in archaic texts? Will the people of the future not have any word to describe the feeling you have when something is so amazing it moves something within you? Will they simply feel it as one of those nebulous emotions that can't be put into words? Without a word to describe it, is it possible that this concept could just disappear? Could another word jump in to fill its place? Big questions, indeed.

No comments: