October 19, 2006

It is so neat and creepy

About a year ago, a certain 10-year-old started a conversation on the way to school by asking me "Isn't it creepy how Trinidad qualified for the World Cup?"

This puzzled me, because I knew that he was a great admirer of the Socca Warriors. So I tried to persuade him that creepy doesn't just mean "striking, interesting by virtue of being unexpected", but has overtones of horror and repugnance. However, my advice had no effect -- creepy, in a sense apparently devoid of any negative evaluation, has become a regular feature of his vocabulary. I thought that this was an idiosyncratic development. But I was wrong.

A couple of evenings ago, I overheard this exchange between two female undergraduates:

A: Where are you from?
B: Near <big city>.
A: Me too!
B: I'm from <suburb X>
A: No way! I'm from <nearby suburbY>!
B: Omigod! That's so creepy!

And here are some random examples from the net:

Isn't it creepy how many singers names start with J?
this is like my twin if i was asian and a grl i mean its so creepy how similar we are but shes like the grl i can count on being there and shes funny
I found this poem and its just really creepy how well it fits into my life with the Tyler ordeal.
It is so neat and creepy how accurate it is.

It's plausible to think of this as a case of metaphorical generalization follow by semantic bleaching. On this theory, creepy started out meaning something like "producing a sensation of uneasiness or fear, as of things crawling on one's skin"; then generalized to mean "annoyingly unpleasant; repulsive". This turned into "unusual in an unpleasant way", and then the unpleasantness became increasingly peripheral, and finally faded out entirely.

Another possibility is that this is an independent development form the original metaphor. What makes your skin crawl may sometimes be awe at something with a supernatural quality, rather than disgust at something repulsive:

TVGuide.com: Playing Ray Charles' longtime manager, Joe Adams, you had some nice front-row seats watching Jamie Foxx create his Oscar-winning portrayal. At the time, did you sense Ray would be something special?
Lennix: We certainly sensed that Jamie was going to deliver something very special — it was creepy how he channeled Ray Charles, and simply remarkable to watch — but we didn't know how people would respond to it. We were just proud of the story we were telling and how we were telling it.

Or maybe there was an abrupt inversion of evaluative sign, as when words like bad, wicked, evil, dope etc. come to be used in a positive way. Here's a suggestive net-example:

Last night the roomies and I went to Katie's for a potluck so good the food was wicked retarded. It was creepy how well everything went together everyone made dishes with fall veggies

By any of these routes, this development is natural enough that it probably has occurred many times, sporadically and independently, before beginning to pick up a critical mass of users (or at least some pockets of them). I wonder whether the beginnings of the current development are recent enough that the process could be tracked on the basis of evidence from informal text on web.

[Several readers have written to suggest that this all just represents the use of creepy in the sense of "uncanny". That's essentially the second sort of semantic dynamics that I suggested as a possible route to the examples I cited. Wherever they come from, though, these examples remain unexpected and even anomalous for people like me, to whom creepy has unavoidable associations of repugnance.]

[Update -- Becci writes that's she's a member of the creepy=uncanny generation:

Hi! I just wanted to add myself to the list of people who use "creepy" to mean "uncanny". I use "weird" in the same way. (I do use both words in a traditional sense as well, though!) For the record, I am 25 years old and until last year, lived in a suburb of Colorado. My husband, who is the same age but grew up in Toronto, is constantly baffled when I refer to something as "creepy" or "weird" but don't mean it in a negative way. I have no idea where I picked it up, but it seems very natural to me. Basically, yours was a very timely and appropriate post! Thanks!

And Craig Russell suggests that he's a half a generation behind:

I too have noticed the new sense of the word 'creepy' that you mention in your Language Log article. This seems to be a part of my younger brother's usage, but I had assumed that it was particular to him or, at least, him and his group of friends (I'm 26; he's 16). I think I have some sense of the path of the word's change. Even to me, one of the senses in which I understand and use the word is "coincidental in such a shocking way that one begins to sense that it is perhaps not a coincidence at all," as in "it's creepy how every time she takes a walk, *he's* there," (the implication being that he's stalking her).

I get the feeling that that it's from this specific sub-meaning that the new development has arisen; most of the examples you give are of coincidences that are judged to be almost TOO unlikely to have happened. Perhaps there is also an element of the supernatural at play; the sense could also be "so coincidental and unlikely that one suspects there are some divine or supernatural forces at work." I imagine that one of the commonest occasion when one hears "creepy" is during movies or TV shows about the supernatural (which seem to be extremely popular for teenagers; how many horror movies are released each month?), so "possibly involving the supernatural" has come to be one of its normal definitions.

And of course, as you say, it is easy to imagine the word from any of these meanings losing its negative sense.

And Ben Zimmer observes that uncanny itself may have followed an analogous path earlier:

On "creepy" creeping into "uncanny" territory... Keep in mind that "uncanny" can often have overtones of horror and repugnance. This is especially the case when "uncanny" is used as a translation-equivalent for German "unheimlich", as in Freud's famous essay "Das Unheimliche" (1919), usually translated as "The Uncanny". From a translation:

http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html The subject of the 'uncanny' is a province of this kind. It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as 'uncanny'; certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.

In fact, the glosses given for uncanny by the OED are:

1. Mischievous, malicious. Obs.
2. Careless, incautious.
3. Unreliable, not to be trusted.Obs.
4. Of persons: Not quite safe to trust to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers.
5. Unpleasantly severe or hard.
6. Dangerous, unsafe.

In modern American usage, I have the impression that most of the negative associations of this word have been bleached out. Consider for example this SI passage, where uncanny just seems to mean "unusually skillful":

What was readily apparent from the moment he won the opening face-off is that Malkin is an entertainer. He's hockey's equivalent to a Jose Canseco or David Ortiz, a bomber who demands your constant attention because a highlight reel moment is possible every time he joins the play. He demonstrated that throughout the night, with his Gumby-like maneuverability when carrying the puck, or his uncanny passing. Memorably, in the third period he laid one seeing-eye beauty that darted its way through three Devils defenders and onto the tape of Whitney, who blasted it wide.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 19, 2006 06:47 AM