Ruminations on Changes in Language

As most of you know, I’m inclined to be very conservative with regard to changes in English–my reaction is something like, “Okay, I’ll accept that change as soon as you convince me it makes the language more flexible, and permits finer distinctions.” Now that, in itself, is neither good nor bad. I understand that many battles have already been lost, and if I still use “hopefully” to mean filled with hope and never use it for I hope or all right-thinking people ought to hope, and if I consider “they” to be plural, well, that’s my business, and I’m not about to criticize someone else for using them differently.  And lately, I’ve even been trying to grit my teeth and remain silent in the face of “proactive.”

In many cases, especially corporate-speak, I know perfectly well why I hate it: it serves to blur distinctions, and to convey a dishonest subtext (for example, “self-select” in place of “choose” is intended to elevate the importance of the subject, the object, or both).

But what is interesting to me is when I discover exceptions. Blatant misuses of English, usually from the internet, that delight me. I’ve found no pattern for when something makes me grimace in pain, and when it makes me smile.

For example, “U” in place of “you” irritates me, but I actively like “obvs.”

Remember the lolcats thing from a few years ago? I hated that. For about six months. Then, suddenly it made me grin, and I even used it a few times. Why the change? I have no idea.

Much of leetspeak (such as “l33t”) makes me want to hit someone. But there are other things just as bad that I’m totes okay with, and some of them are just adorbz.

So, do you love them all, hate them all, or are there some you like?  And if you can figure out a pattern in my taste or your own, I’m interested in hearing it. Because language.

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67 thoughts on “Ruminations on Changes in Language”

  1. After some initial resistance, I’ve become a proponent of the singular gender-neutral “they”, which incidentally has 800 years or so of attestation behind it, so is not exactly some Johnny-come-lately neologism.

    This sounds like a very weird usage of “self-select” you’ve run into. Its only proper usage that I know of is in describing a form of statistical sampling bias, i.e. the reason you can’t validly generalize from the results obtained in a poll sampled from people already strongly interested in commenting on the issue in question.

    Defining “literally” to mean the opposite of literally will never, ever be acceptable.

    I find that, in general, my likelihood of accepting these formations is EXTREMELY susceptible to Aristotle’s rhetorical principle of ethos; I am infinitely more likely to regard them positively if first exposed to them from the mouth of someone I like.

  2. Wow, I could go on about this one for ages. Well, for years, I’m unlikely to live ages. (But one can hope!) Short form: Precision is important, but so is flavor. As a poet, it is important (to me) to write in the vernacular of the times even when that isn’t the vernacular of one’s upbringing. As a gamer, I have become enamoured of the subculture geekiness of leet-speak. I use chillax mostly to make Sean Kelley crazy. Some of it is learning to use the language of the subcultures around one, particularly as someone who is somewhat older but engaged with many people younger. I find lolcats hysterical (generally) but I couldn’t say why. Maybe it’s a question of choosing one’s battles. (I had to go back through this post and remove the double-spaces after periods – a battle I have lost but a habit I haven’t broken….)

  3. I hate “incentivize.” I think it’s just business jargon that people thought was a word and misused so often that it made its way into the dictionary. I also can’t stand “guestimate;” not all portmanteau are meant to be. For the most part, I really don’t like text abbreviations, especially when people use them in everyday conversation. That’s probably because I tend to shy away from social media.

  4. Adorkable.

    My real problem is the blatant disregard that most people have for prepositions, strangely enough. I don’t care if someone ends a sentence with ’em. I just don’t want to see anyone using OH MY GOD SINCE AND BECAUSE ARE NOT THE SAME WORD I WILL @#$%^&* KILL YOU!!!

  5. Chaos: Thank you, but I decline to discuss the singular “they” at this time. As for “self-select,” it has become popular among some “educators.*” An example is, “Johnny self-selected to practice the violin instead of playing a computer game.” This is real. You may now cringe.

    *”Educators” usually means teachers, sometimes also includes administrators, and is used to blur the distinction between them, and also to increase their status. Those using it hope that by increasing the status of teachers by using a more elevated term, they won’t have pay them as much, and that by conflating the job with administrators, we won’t notice how little most administrators actually accomplish. Oddly, this is just the reverse of some other terminology changes; for example, “sanitation workers” deserve more money than, “garbage men” and the change came as part of the fight for higher wages, rather than an attempt to subvert it.

  6. I’m guessing that raising the spectre of the Americanisation of English may not be too helpful in this particular discussion…

  7. I’ve always had a problem with slang. Sometimes I feel I’m the only person who has never used “cool” unless refering to temperature. Things like totes and adorbz irritate me, and I would never know what obvs mean (obviously?) without plenty of context. I honestly can’t imagine subjecting myself to people who’d seriously use such terms.

    Jargon is fine in its place, but when people use it elsewhere, I think it’s generally because they’re trying to sound smart or they’re just too self-centered to recall not everyone is a statistician, and either reason annoys me.

    For me, selecting new words to use is generally a conscious decision. That is, I’m sure I’ve picked up words without really noticing them, but for the most part I’m perfectly aware of what words I’m deciding to use. Just as I don’t use abbreviations when typing because I type fast enough not to need them, I don’t use verbal shortcuts because I already have enough words and am used to picking the ones I want so that I don’t have to look for ways to make speaking faster. And that, it seems to me, is the point behind a lot of these terms. People conversate with each other because they’re too lazy to connect “conversation” with its proper verb and just make up what sounds right to them rather than taking a second to recall the accepted word.

    It’s true subcultures use their own slang as a marker of belonging, but I’ve never felt the need to belong anywhere to the point I’ve adopted new speech patterns to fit in. On the contrary, I tend to have to edit myself so as not to stand out too much. I actually use “whom” when appropriate, and make an effort not to at work so I don’t alienate people who don’t know me yet.

    I guess in short, slang, whether written or verbal, bothers me because people who adopt it wholesale are showing they’re happy to go along with the crowd rather than developing their own character, and I find such people bland.

  8. Steve, based on the examples, you like things that are made shorter. I generally share this prejudice: if the new word’s as long or longer, why bother?

    I’ve also been thinking about the class implications of new language. Because Latin? That doesn’t belong to the people. English belongs to the people, and James Nicoll is right about what English does. What he misses is that every living language does the same thing, and the upper class agonizes about it.

  9. I’ve always despised “proactive”. It comes from management-consultant-speak in the early 90s.

    Obviously “reactive management” is no good, because it shows passive qualities not suited to masculine dominance in the workplace. But of course a consultant always prefers to coin a new word instead of using an existing one. In this case, they chose to snub the perfectly useful “active” in favor of the ugly neologism, which before this had been a highly technical term of art in psychology.

    A lot of usage of this type comes from subordinated servility in corporate hierarchies. “Proactive” would have flickered out except that some major CEOs adopted it, and naturally so did everyone else.

    When I was at Bellcore, our CEO, a management drone hired from outside the telecom industry with no knowledge of R&D, software, or telecom, once accidentally referred to “bottoms-up design” at an all-hands meeting. This was a perfectly honest mistake, a slip of the tongue he no doubt would have been embarrassed to be informed of. No reference to sex positions or on-the-job drinking was intended. Everyone in the company knew very well that the proper term was “bottom-up design”. And yet within a week, managers everywhere in the company were using the phrase, with no hint of irony, and no intention of mocking the CEO. They had simply subordinated their common sense to the point of accepting information from on high with no critical faculties applied. And this in a company dedicated to advanced software development and applied research. Sigh.

  10. Steve: Ugh. That sounds like the statistical terminology bled from its valid technical origin into more general use by way of people trying to sound smart. Like businesspeople talking about “price points” instead of “prices” when no actual demand curves are anywhere near the conversation.

    Christoper: As a game designer, I use “incentivize” continually because its meaning is one I work with. What would you propose I replace it with?

    On the general topic, I think the pathetic error we are most likely to see enshrined next is the usage of “infer” to mean “imply”.

  11. My irritant has been, and probably will always be, source as a verb. The restaurant didn’t source their beef from the kindly environmentally correct ranch in lower Timbuktu, the chef (or owner) found the beef there and bought it, so he could sell it to us at a stomach-churning mark-up because it was locally sourced. I’m sure there are others…awkward phrases made necessary because real language isn’t always politically correct. “Diversity” meant to mean your culture, but not mine. the new “intellectual/cognitive disabilities” — how about just cognitive? That kind of thing. Because crotchety. What a great old word — I think I shall be crotchety from now on just for the fun of saying it.

  12. CP: What’s wrong with “motivate” or “reward” for “incentivize”? In the gaming industry, I also hear everyone using “mitigate” for “reduce” in technical design discussions, e.g. “armor mitigates damage but agility lowers hit probability”. “Mitigate” is okay here, I suppose, but you’d think that “reduce” would be easier….

    Also, I think that for whatever reason people tend to recognize and accept the wrongness of the imply/infer mistake when it’s pointed out to them. Changes based on solecisms become enshrined when people refuse to accept the fact of the error. So for example “they” users were simply being polemically stubborn at first, because they (heh) knew very well the usage was incorrect, but in the absence of an appropriate genderless pronoun, they used “they” anyway. Now of course they are using “they” correctly by dint of their insistence on the usage over time.

  13. Miramon: “Motivate” doesn’t fill the same role as “incentivize”, but “reward” does (as well as “reinforce”, if for some reason we were comfortable using psychological jargon). “Reward” doesn’t feel quite adequate to me as a substitute, because saying “we will reward X behavior” seems to somewhat construct the act of rewarding as disconnected from the point of it, which is encouraging (providing an incentive for) X behavior. I mean, someone who knows the area will understand that, but that risks using the word as the worst sort of jargon, the kind that’s aliased to a standard-usage term, so a layman may hear it and believe understanding has occurred when it hasn’t. (Like “progressive taxation” and “regressive taxation”.) I might give it a try anyway, though; thanks.

  14. An interesting one is “utilise”. I constantly see it used to mean “use,” but “use” is a much better word for that purpose. I looked it up to find out whether it had any legitimate place in the English language and found that it does have another, rather nice meaning. To “utiilise” something is to use it for something other than its intended purpose. For example, you can use a paperclip to hold paper together, or you could utilise a paperclip to get the SIM out of you phone or clean wax from your ear.

  15. Chaos: “That sounds like the statistical terminology bled from its valid technical origin into more general use by way of people trying to sound smart. Like businesspeople talking about “price points” instead of “prices” when no actual demand curves are anywhere near the conversation.:

    Exactly right.

    Cynthia: Yeah, source is another one.

    But the point of this post (not that “the point of a post” ever has anything to do with where the discussion goes!) isn’t another bitch session about language abuse, but trying to figure out under what conditions I, or you, *don’t* mind the changes. In other words, what’s odd is when I find certain changes charming.

    I think Chaos, Will, and L. Raymond all have a piece of it. I know I started changing my mind about “totes” and some others because jenphalian was using those words; I know there are some I like because they’re shorter; and there are some I dislike because it feels like mindlessly following a crowd, and some I like because of the associations of the crowd that use them (“geekspeak” if you will) delight me.

    I still feel like there’s a piece missing–like there’s a particular kind of irony in some of them that just makes me smile. But there’s no law that says my tastes have to be consistent, is there?

  16. I just want to point out that being short and easy is not the entire point of language. Sometimes you want color. Sometimes you want rhythm. Sometimes you want a few extra words so that you can pause and breathe.

    As for the original post, I have lost almost all the twitchiness I used to have about the misuse of language. A few things can still rile me up — “infer” for “imply” is one of them. I value precision. But informal conversation may value other things more — see above.

    I am really smitten by lolcat. I gather that linguists have been at it and discerned a remarkably consistent set of rules, so maybe it just feels right. We use terms from it at home, most notably “haz” as a kind of emphatic form of anything from “eat” to “possess.” “I’m going to haz my chocolate now, and then we can play with the cats.” Why we don’t use “nom” in that sentence but do use it as a noun, almost always in the plural, is a puzzle for more linguists, I suppose.


  17. Significance: Yes. And the other valid usage of “utilize” is something like, to make useful something that previously was not, which is often folded into the usage you mention. I sometimes dream of writing a column called, “The Sports Grammarian,” in which I pick apart idiocies in sports commentary. “He utilized his speed” would be my first target.

    Pamela: Color, rhythm, yeah. I think you’re right. But then, you would be. Because Pamela.

  18. Certain things made shorter make sense to me:

    “Prolly” – absolutely
    “I’ma” – effective in rap, as in “I’ma kill you”

    “hella” or “right?” — Not for me.

    “Please see the below list” ? Shoot me.

  19. “Inorite” and “imma” are totes awesomzorz.

    I think part of why I like “totes” and “adorbz” and similar constructions is that they taste similar, to me (if I may wax synaesthetic for a moment), to Latin -s suffix adjectives and adverbs, which I’ve always liked.

  20. I think there’s a difference between natural language change (that is, language change that springs from popular usage) and imposed language change (that comes from intellectual or political elites). History shows that attempts to control the evolution of a language make that language increasingly clunky and alien to reality, in some cases to the point where it actually becomes a completely separate language to the one spoken by the people. Imposed language change also usually serves political goals, such as to obscure unpleasant realities or pretend to solve problems by redefining them. George Carlin was particularly good at pointing out that sort of thing.

    The other kind of language change can be annoying, too. Sometimes it’s an improvement, sometimes… not so much. I doubt there’s much any of us can do about it, but I do prefer to stick to the currently correct usage myself. In fact, like you, I’m probably slightly conservative when it comes to that. The only exception is when people start going on about preserving the purity of language.

    As for lolspeak, it makes me giggle very much – but it’s not *meant* to be everyday language. If we all spoke like that, it would cease to be funny; it’s the contrast and the context that make it so brilliant (in a daft way).

  21. First, David M. Perry, do we REALLY want to get into keeping the meanings of English words always consistent with Latin origins? And if so, why only Latin? Why shouldn’t all our English words keep the meanings of their origins?

    For that matter, “alternus” has a plural form in Latin; would you really prefer English to use “alternitive” (“others”) rather than “alternatives” for more than two? (“We have three alternitive.”)And why should we use the same form for masculine, feminine, and neuter? After all, Latin doesn’t. (Maybe “The alternustives are Joe and Sam”; “The alternatives are Sue and Jane”; “The alternumtives are the chair or the couch.”)

  22. The only changes I dislike on principle are those that take away a meaning for which there is no other single word. I particularly dislike changes that assign a word what was originally its opposite meaning. So I dislike the conflation of “imply” and “infer.” There are some changes I dislike because I personally don’t like them for some reason, but those I simply don’t use.

    I like “proactive”; it has its own meaning that no other single word has.

    When educators use “self-select,” do they really mean simply “choose”? Or do they mean to emphasize that the student made the choice on his/her own, without any input from the teacher? If they mean simply “choose,” I agree with the dislike, but if they mean the latter, I see the usefulness of the term. And as someone points out, its use in statistical sampling is important information.

  23. As a non-native speaker, I guess I often miss the more subtle infractions to English language ortodoxy.
    But all in all, as long as the new usage does not become invasive and intensive, I’m fine.
    Politically correct usages do sometimes sound silly – and indeed they work against communication, so I don’t like that stuff so much.
    But in all honesty, growing up in a country where a learned society exists (the “Accademia della Crusca”) whose purpose is denouncing any change or evolution in language as an infraction to whatever it is they consider “right”, led me to be pretty tolerant of misuses, abuses and assorted weirdness.

  24. “Because Latin” may open up a can of worms, and be where we get nonsense like the whole split infinitive thing, but there will always be a special place in my heart for any work of language that uses “decimate” to mean “destroy one tenth of”.

  25. Things like totes, adorbz, lol, etc don’t bother me as they are essentially a different method of performing a contraction. They retain the original meaning. What irritates me is the subversion of meaning where the word is essentially misused and then accepted. The misuse of words like literally (that literally transforms to figuratively) irritates me greatly.
    l33t and such (just like pig latin) are just alternate encodings that don’t do anything for me either way.

  26. Hey, and look at this lovely sacred cow barbecue that popped up this morning:

    Leet is less irritating for its intrinsic properties than for its historical significance as an encoding which originally had a technical motivation (confounding of FBI and NSA keyword scanning software, which HOLY SHIT TURNED OUT TO BE A THING, not that leet gave it any trouble for more than five minutes) and immediately became a preciously aped social status signifier.

  27. “trying to figure out under what conditions I, or you, *don’t* mind the changes. In other words, what’s odd is when I find certain changes charming.”

    It sounds like that comes down to a question of socializing. If you enjoy the company of people (real or virtual) and those people adopt new words for whatever reason, they probably tend to grow on you. The same thing with social media. I assume a lot of new slang I don’t get probably comes from Twitter hash tags, just as the old slang came from high school cliques I wasn’t part of. When you hang around with a group who uses new phrases, they so quickly cease to be new that you stop noticing them and don’t wonder why you use them.

  28. Interesting post. Most text speak (“u” for “you,” “2” for “too,” “r” for “are,” etc.) makes me want to stab someone’s eye out. I also dislike when people actually say “lol” instead of typing it or things like that. But something like “obvs.” or “btdubs” maybe somehow feels more acceptable because it is closer to standard abbreviations? I still tend to text in complete sentences and just find shorter words for Twitter. I guess I haven’t thought enough about it to form a pattern. I think language is situational and what bothers me the most is language use which seems inappropriate to the context. Some communications require more formal language structures, and sometimes I feel that gets lost on the Internet (e-mailing a boss vs. a friend, for example). Humans seem hard-wired to dislike change, but language changes all the time regardless.

  29. I’ve often wondered this exact thing! What I find most appealing (and should find appalling) is “ESL” word choices, where the meaning is clear but the… rhythm? of the phrasing is wrong; the definitions are sensible but the part of speech is wrong, etc.

    “I’m going to clean All The Things!”
    “Obvious Troll is Obvious.”
    “If it’s not for sits, why is it made of warms?” (kitten on a laptop)
    “Look at that, my dog forgot how to dog.”

    It’s not as easy as it ought to be, to craft those in a way that appeals to me.

  30. Good comments, all.

    *rant on*

    Thanks for the link, Chaos. I disagree with almost all of it, but it is clearly written, showing evidence that the author read Strunk & White and used the techniques therein to make his argument (except he skipped the bit about shorter being more powerful; his essay would have been improved considerably by making it tighter).

    Mr. Pullum spends a lot of time on the issue of the passive voice, neatly skimming past what is most important: that, most of the time, to make an active statement is stronger than to make a passive statement. To say, “Mistakes were made” is both weaker than saying, “I made a mistake” and hides responsibility. Making beginning writers aware of this leads to better writing; didactic attacks on it help no one.

    A key moment in the essay is, I think, here: “‘Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,’ they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)”

    And yet, that is what Pullum does in his essay, and it is, moreover, exactly what beginning writers fail to do that most hurts their style. Pullum dismisses in a parenthetical remark one of the most important points in the book. Sure, there are times for saying, “He moved quickly across the field,” but 90% of the time it’s better to say, “He ran across the field,” and this is exactly what beginning writers need to understand. And anyone familiar with beginning writers should know this. Is Pullum being disingenuous here, or stupid?

    It has, in general, become more and more popular to attack *The Elements of Style*, starting in the late 60’s when a number of academics decided that the rules of bad beat poetry should also apply to prose, and that actually trying to teach strong, active writing skills was too authoritarian; writers who believed this have been forgotten. Usually, the attacks were on the basis that Pullum makes his: by attacking the way it is misused by people who don’t understand it, like objecting to the existence of the internet because so much stuff on it is terrible.

    The fact remains, however, that I have yet to meet a good writer who doesn’t own a well-thumbed copy of Strunk & White (I’ve gone through three); and the few I’ve met who have said they dislike the book have been bad writers.

    *rant off*

  31. From your examples in the post, you seem to dislike it when:
    -The usage of the word changes its meaning
    -It’s just an alternative spelling of a word (‘1337’ or ‘U’)

    But you don’t mind it when, if you said the word, it sounds different (totes vs totally).

    As far as I can remember, early Lolcat speak was more bad spelling than anything else, whereas now it is more distinctive. But this may be me misremembering things in order to support my hypothesis…

  32. Jonas: Oh, forgot to mention. Yes, I agree, but the thing that most stood out in what you said was the word “daft.” It is such a wonderful word. Why is it that Americans have never adopted it? Of all the charming Britishism, and there are many, that one stands at the top. From now on, I’m going to look for excuses to use it. For Americans to simply ignore the existence of that wonderful, expressive word, is just daft.

    Oh, and speaking of wonderful words, I just read a book written in 1885, and came upon the word, “thitherward,” as in, “Once the news came out that the territory was open, thousands of New Englanders quickly moved thitherward.” GLEE!

  33. “ran” is not just shorter than “moved quickly”; it’s actually more specific as well. You could call it more concrete. “Moved quickly” actually has some of the feeling of avoidance that passive voice often does — the writer is trying to avoid specifying something.

  34. It rarely occurs to me to like or dislike variations in language in and of themselves. Rather, words/phrases/phrasings will seem appropriate, or inappropriate, depending on context. Context is subjective; the same word may feel right to one half of a conversation, and wrong to the other.

    This post reminds me of when I read the Khaavren books and adopted the frequent use of “pretend” as in “Well, you pretend we can settle matters without fighting, then?” I love that word!

  35. One of my favorite critiques of change in language is Hofstadter’s:

    As for Strunk and White, I think it’s worth reading but not an infallible source. For example, a look here
    shows that folks who used “they” to evade gender references to an unnamed singular individual have long been on the radar of language purists, but shows that S&W was capable of completely missing the boat on “viewpoint”. What a difference a few decades make.

  36. “It has, in general, become more and more popular to attack *The Elements of Style*….”

    I’m thinking that if it had been titled *Rules Everybody Must Follow When Writing* it would have deserved some attack.

    But if it had been titled *Some Techniques for Powerful Writing* then it would not deserve any attack at all.

  37. The point of language is to communicate. Sometimes we prefer efficiency, other times precision, poetry, color, etc.

    Poor word choices, poor grammar, a lack of style are only truly *-wrong-* if they cause the information content to be lost, misinterpreted, or disregarded. The intended audience should (usually) dictate the form.

    That said, I hate l33t, IM/chat/twitter-speak. I dislike seeing perfectly good words tortured into new meanings. I enjoy the differences between what are often considered synonyms: e.g., shrewd, wily, cagey, cunning, astute, crafty, sly, et al. Anything that diminishes that richness of language is a step backwards.

  38. “The point of language is to communicate. Sometimes we prefer efficiency, other times precision, poetry, color, etc.” You speak truth, Mr. Kevin O’Neill. I salute you. A toast to those who fight to prevent “anything that diminishes that richness of language…”

  39. Sorry but I agree with most of what Pullum said. I have often been taken to task for splitting an infinitive when there was none is sight. They know the “rule” against splitting infinitives (which never had any justification in English anyhow) but don’t know what an infinitive is. Once I wrote a 14 page report for a committee and one of the members wrote back that he agreed except I had split two infinitives. In 14 pages! Similarly, as Pullum showed, not even S&W know what a passive is. That said, I do generally avoid passives because they are usually weak or else weasel clauses (“mistakes were made”, everybody’s favorite).

    To get back to the original post, let me just say that when language stops changing it is because it has died. I am generally only mildly disconcerted by change. “Proactive” is not a weasel word and a real addition to the language. The ones I do object to are those that cause a distinction to be lost. The prototype is “disinterested” whose distinction from “uninterested” seems to have been totally lost. Things like “U” and “gr8” don’t bother me at all. I guess I (mis)use “hopefully” with the worst of them. It is a distinction lost, but that one is long gone. I also like “LOL” and “ROFL”. What is “lolcat”? There is a problem of knowing what these things mean.

  40. What do the defenders of ‘proactive’ think it means, that ‘active’ does not?

    And while I’m at it… ‘conferencing’ is Abomination.

  41. Language change fascinates me. I accept it as a natural process, so I don’t usually get worked up about words or usages unless they are clearly incorrect (“irregardless” used to mean “regardless” comes to mind).

    That said, some trends do irritate me. Words like “totes” and “adorbz” come across cutesy, which can be grating when overused.

  42. My favorite is “srsly”, followed by “Imma” and “I can haz”

    I’ve found slang, and especially meme slang, helps me test the waters with new people, especially people of a different generation. If they understand what I’m saying, it feels like a sooper seekrit friendship bond.

    It was an instant bonding moment with a kid I was tutoring, when her Mom mentioned a minor medical condition that the kid was embarrassed about and I responded with “Wow that was TMI”. The mom had no idea what I was saying, and suddenly the preteen wanted to be my best friend. We had a great tutoring session.

    A pattern you say? I like clarity, and dislike marketing. A lot of internet meme slang is just a way of saying “this is cute”, or “i found this funny”, so I enjoy it. The person using the slang term isn’t pushing me to do anything except enjoy something they enjoyed. The businesspeak/marketingspeak annoys me, things like “self select”, “proactively synergize”, shit like that. Makes me feel like I’m in a focus group. it’s the opposite of the sooper seekrit friendship bond.

  43. I was employed for awhile as an in-house copyeditor for a financial publisher, so I’m fascinated by language constructs that have their own grammar. For example, I love LOLcats because I can spend hours trying to puzzle out appropriate spelling and usage and make distinctions like “IS” is the same as its English counterpart while IZ is LOLcat for “I am” or “I’m.” l33t is also fun because not only does it use a different alphabet, but there are variants that almost count as dialect (i.e., 1337 vs. l33t).

    That said, I try never to use textspeak either in texts or on twitter. Because standards.

  44. DrDaveT, “active” has no time, no circumstances, attached to it. It doesn’t mean “acting in anticipation” as “proactive” does.

    The OED dates “conferencing” to 1833. Abomination it may be, but it has been one for close to two centuries.

  45. I know a guy whose dad claims to have invented, or at least popularized, the word “proactive”–supposedly as a deliberate logical opposite to “reactive” (i.e., “reactive” is action in response to an action, “proactive” is an initiating action without a causal antecedent.) This is supposed to have been in some Pentagon white paper about nuclear warfare in the late 70s/early 80s.

    The same guy (acquaintance’s dad) claims to have written the white paper that sold Reagan on Star Wars, thereby ending the Cold War.

    Sooooo….there’s that.

    In re: language use, a lot of Internet-based language-manglings are deliberately wrong–wrong for effect, rather than wrong through ignorance. Getting mad at the spelling and grammar in a lolcats poster is like (in another time) getting mad at a court jester for making puns and talking nonsense. Of course it’s bad English. That’s the point. (Well, that and the cute little kitty.)

  46. I live in the maw of the beast since I work at a software company in the marketing department. Happily, we have an active effort underway to strip out as much of the “marketing-speak” possible that has crept into our materials over the years. Some of it is truly mind blowing. I also must confess I am one of those language fascists that will either correct the grammar of the text message my teenagers send me, or better yet, intentionally ignore their communiques until they resemble something like English. My reward is now I have an English major daughter who is actually considering pursuing becoming an English professor herself. Mission accomplished.

  47. evergreen – a simple online etymology search shows that ‘pro-active’ has been in use since at least the 1920s and ‘proactive’ since the 1930s. So your friend’s dad certainly didn’t invent the word (nor did Star Wars end the Cold War).

    You can use Google’s Ngram viewer to see one measure of how a word’s frequency of use has changed over time.

  48. It seems I have been insufficiently explicit in conveying the way I received these anecdotes myself. Let it suffice to say that I took them to be more useful as indicators of my acquaintance’s father’s character and/or sense of humor than as insights into etymology or history.

    It happens to be my only “proactive” anecdote (and I’d like to meet the person who has two), and I’ve always found it mildly amusing, so I thought I’d throw it out there. Please, students in search of philological truth, do not take it or any other etymology appearing in a blog comment section and prefaced by “a third party claims to have invented this word” as accurate without further investigation.

  49. In defense of your friend’s father, independent creation happens more often in the arts than people realize. And, also frustratingly common, people forget that they saw something and think they invented it.

  50. And so it is that emoticons – another irritating neologism – are replaced by the phrases they were meant to replace.

    “See what I did there” = ;)

  51. skzb: If only you were the administrator of this blog, you could have inserted your reply above mine, and that *really* would have been proactive…. Oh, wait :D

  52. L. Raymond: While I don’t agree with that that observation applies in this case, in general I less than three it.

    Miramon: Hee hee.

  53. After playing the original Secret of Monkey Island in middle school, I became somewhat obsessed with cartoon/movie/silly pirate stuff, including pirate speak. I quickly adopted “Arr” as my general grunt of acknowledgement, and “Yar” as my general grunt of affirmation (each with or without exclamation point, as necessary). I also quite like the silly-pirate “ye” (for “you,” not to be confused with the Olde Englishe “ye” spelling of “the); though I don’t use it often enough in actual conversation, it’s my default version of “you” for texts/IMs.
    (Incidentally, a couple years prior, earlier in middle-school, I adopted a glottal-stop method of self-censoring when using curse words, in keeping with the brief patches of silence on network television, of which I watched a great deal.)

    “Irregardless” bothers me, as does the figurative “literally,” unless it’s done intentionally, as by the writers of Parks & Rec. (It then becomes especially funny when Chris uses it correctly without realizing it: “It was _literally_ a tiny calzone.”)

    I can’t stand text-speak because it’s full of both intentional and unintentional misspellings, often by people who never bothered to learn the correct spellings. There is an underlying assumption in text-speak that spelling does not matter, which is like a slap in the face to the nuance (and potential for double entendre) created by homophones.
    Bizarre contractions that actually change the way words sound are much more enticing, though I agree with a previous contributor that some (“totes” and “adorbz,” as popularized by Lydia on LBD) are cutesy enough that they are tolerable only in very short doses. (I feel the same way about “kitteh.”)

    I will also say that all words, phrases, and language patterns used in the show Adventure Time fill me with delight. The feeling is very similar to how I feel when listening to Big Lebowski dialogue, though I think the reasons are different.

    Great post. Great discussion. Thank ye.

  54. My SO introduced me to the word “prolly” for “probably”, and I like that now.

    “Orientate” makes me cringe, as does “irregardless”.

    I really hate most text-speak, especially the laziness of using “u” for “you”. Seriously!! It always makes me wonder if the writer actually is aware of the correct spelling and grammar at all.

    Not a written language issue, but I also cringe when people in my office add a completely unnecessary “at” to the end of their sentences. “Where were you at?” “When was it at?” I’m not sure where that speech pattern came from, but I’d like it to return there!

    “Significant other” is not the best term for adult relationships. People in their 50’s do not have “girlfriends” and “boyfriends”. I wish there were a better term in English.

  55. ‘“Significant other” is not the best term for adult relationships. People in their 50′s do not have “girlfriends” and “boyfriends”. I wish there were a better term in English.’

    Invent one and use it. People might copy you.

    “My lover” might have too much baggage of old connotations. You might want to get something else across.

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