Monday, June 28, 2010

New Words, Yes, But New Meaning?

by Thomas Kando

This piece is not another complaint about PC newspeak. We all know what’s happened to language over the past few decades, due to the inane requirements of political correctness:

It began with ethnic labels - “Negro” became out, “Black” became in, then “African-American” became even more in. “Oriental” also became taboo, as did “Mohammedan” and countless other labels. Later, other categories had to be re-labeled, including the genders, and all sorts of physical conditions. This soon became the topic of jokes by people like George Carlin.

If we must rename the “physically handicapped” “differently able,” then why not refer to “balding” as “follicle regression,” refer to a bad dancer as “overly Caucasian,” call a woman “verbally repetitive” instead of a nag, or refer to women as “breasted Americans” instead of, God forbid, babes or chicks.

But there is also faddish newspeak in less politically charged areas of the lexicon. Suddenly, a word becomes very popular. And even though it has become a new craze, there is little or no gain in meaning. This is what I want to illustrate today. Here are some examples:

1. The word “algorithm,” as in: “Professor Smith has an algorithm to figure out which is the best soccer team in the world.”This has become a popular word, especially with anyone fascinated by computer technology, i.e. 80% of the population.Meaning? A method or procedure to solve a problem. This is exactly the definition of the old word “formula.” That word has worked well for me for the past 50 years, so I’ll stick with it.

2. To “deconstruct,” as in: “The author deconstructs the motives of his story’s hero.”This is one of the post-modernists’ favorite words (post-modernists are people who feel that they are the intellectual vanguard).Meaning? To examine the detailed workings of something. Well, in my day, we called this “to analyze.” Once again, there is little difference between the old word and the new word. At best a difference in nuance.

3. “Icon,” as in: “Singer so-and-so is a true icon in the firmament of modern rock stars.”Nowadays, “icon” and “idol” are used practically interchangeably. That’s understandable, since they both mean: A highly admired person. Again, while “icon” has recently almost totally replaced “idol,” there is no added meaning.

4. “Amazing,” as in: “We took a trip to India. It was amazing!”Today, everything is “amazing.” Someone is interviewed on TV about a recent experience or a meeting with a celebrity, and everything is always “amazing.” Meaning: Wonderful; Great. Etc.

5. “Inappropriate,” as in: “His comments were inappropriate.” This word is used for anything you don’t agree with, but cannot call an outright lie or obscenity. It simply means: “Wrong,” or: “I don’t agree,” or: “I don’t like what you are saying.”

6. “Journey,” as in: “My college graduation was the end of an exciting journey...”Everything has become a “journey.” Another very popular word nowadays, another word which doesn’t add meaning to earlier synonyms such as “experience.”

My point, then, is simple: just because a word is suddenly en vogue does not mean that it adds meaning to our language. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with verbal fads. Language evolves. What is amusing, though, is the widespread belief that the sudden popularity of a word makes it more meaningful. That those who use such words are on to some new meaning. This is often not the case. The “new” words often just reinvent the wheel or, to use another metaphor, they are old wine in a new bottle. leave comment here