February 09, 2004

Word up, word down

Today's A.L.D. has a link to John Powers' lexicographically-challenged rant about the "growing imprecision of usage" among contemporary Americans, who allegedly "may mean what they say, but they can't always summon the language to say what they mean", and right next to it, a link to an SF Chronicle article by Rona Marech, explaining that "[w]ith the universe of gender and sexual identities expanding, a gay youth culture emerging, acceptance of gays rising and label loyalty falling, the gay lexicon has exploded with scores of new words and blended phrases that delineate every conceivable stop on the identity spectrum." Her article mentions and briefly defines a couple of dozen of these new terms.

Just as Powers' article is typical of the genre that sees lexical and conceptual distinctions dissolving in the acid bath of ill-bred ignorance, Marech's article is also a common type, reveling in the exuberant fruiting of new concepts and words in the fairy rings of fertile subcultures. Both kinds of articles can be factually problematic: new "mistakes" and "creations" alike are sometimes not so new after all (though I have no basis for doubting Marech's discussion). Even if complaints and enthusiasms are sometimes misinformed, words and word senses really do die out, and new ones really do emerge. But common sense suggests that the forces of destruction and creation must be in balance, over the long term, or the language of our everyday life would turn into something very different from what it's always been, and probably always will be.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 9, 2004 06:02 PM