Friday, September 17, 2010

Don't get emo about language change

As language evolves, some words widen in scope while other words narrow. "Girl," for example, used to mean a child of either sex. To put it another way, a word can come to apply to a subset or a superset of the set it originally applied to. I can't remember the "sexy" linguistic term(s) for this kind of change. (It's kind of a pet peeve of mine when people use "sexy" to basically mean technical. Isn't it just an excuse to say "sexy," suggesting that you either are sexy or are particularly tuned in to sexiness?) This is a different process from words becoming pejorative (less positive), the way "fine" used to mean lovely or excellent and now just means okay, or "handicapped" became an insult.

I think the term "emo" is widening in scope. When I first heard this term it referred to a very specific genre of music (an example of which is Sunny Day Real Estate). Now it seems to refer to anything or anybody that is emotional or associated with emotions. I heard someone refer to an upbeat pop song by Regina Spektor as "emo" on Twitter yesterday. Long bangs? Emo. Using the hood on your hoodie? Emo. I feel alienated from people who use the word "emo" in this way, probably similar to how my parents feel about my generation's use of the word "awesome."

What's a term that is currently narrowing in scope? Like it seems to be applicable in fewer situations than it was earlier in your lifetime? I'm having trouble thinking of one. You could probably do this exercise just with music genres, but I don't know enough about them.


  1. For me Emo is Thirty Seconds to Mars and Paramore, it's a zone formerly occupied by Indie and Grunge but Gothed up because of all those vampire movies I have never seen.
    I can't think of an example in English but the narrowing of the scope happens a lot with loan words in other languages. Cake only means sponge cake in Dutch (taart is the generic whereas tart in English is more specific).
    Maybe disco is a word that has narrowed actually. It used to mean any nightclub where they played music but now it refers to a style of music and people call the places clubs unless they want to sound like dinosaurs.

  2. Good examples! I think "cake" is closer to "cookie" in British English too.

  3. it annoys me when people say "intelligence is sexy."

  4. my favorite and drastic one of these is how "thing" originally meant only a meeting or an assembly

  5. Elisa,
    I was thinking a lot about your post today and I came up with the word gay as a good example.
    When I was growing up in Ireland in the 70s gay meant either happy or it was short for Gabriel (the most famous TV personality in Ireland was Gay Byrne). Now it is only used in the context of homosexuality. Funnily enough in British English gay normally only applies to men whereas in American English it is not gender specific.

  6. I thought about that one, but I think it's more of a radical shift, since "homosexual" isn't exactly a subset or superset of "happy," you know? It's more a completely different concept.

    American English retains some of that gender bias -- it can apply to women but it's less common. That's why you get stuff like "LGBT" which stands for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, making a distinction between gay and lesbian.

  7. A couple of words that come to mind:

    Passion -- previously used to refer to lovemaking, supreme religious or spiritual experience, profound creative impulses, etc. Now almost anything a person enjoys doing is a "passion" -- watching soccer on T.V., collecting Star Trek toys, making pizza.

    Sweet -- used to refer to something that tastes sweet (e.g. sugar), or an act or gesture of kindness (or a person who does such an act) (e.g. "That's sweet of you."). Now it means what "awesome" or "cool" used to mean.

    "Girl" used to mean a child of either sex? When was that? I've never known "girl" to mean anyone other than a female person (though the age of the person might vary depending on who's using the word and when in history they've used it). Did I miss an entire generation of life on earth?

  8. "Girl" meant that in its original form many centuries ago. That was a general example, not one of recent change.

    The slang meaning of "cool" cannibalizes other positive adjectives because it gets so overused that we need new words for it. Hence "awesome," "sweet," "radical," etc. all being borrowed to mean "cool."