21 Dezember 2006

Evolution of Expression

"Change is the essential process of all existence." --Mr. Spock

Forgive my incurable dorkiness, but it nonetheless is true. Conservative and dogmatic as I like to be concerning the Queen's English (we'll leave the President's "English" for a much longer rant), change is inescapable. At the same time, it is also noteworthy to observe what does not" change, or does so only in very subtle ways.

Some time ago, quite by chance I turned on the television's closed-captioning subtitles, and strangely enough, tracking the spoken dialog with them became a habit, even though I am neither deaf nor hard of hearing. An amusing little pastime I've developed as a result consists of monitoring the phrasing, word choices, slang and expressions in old films and television shows. Intrinsic merit (or lack thereof) aside, they provide a handy carbon-dating system as our language (d)evolves. Would you be surprised, for example, to find out that, expressions like "kinda sorta" were in common use as far back as the 1950s? (Beaver Cleaver) Or that, long before Will Smith, phrases like "Don't be usin' my aftershave" and "loosen up!" were being uttered by the putatively ur-white-bread suburban 1950s teen Wally Cleaver? Or that Ward, paterfamilias extraordinaire (to mix-and-match two Romance tongues) greeted people with an offhanded "What's up?" In His Girl Friday (1940), one of the great "screwball comedies" starring Cary Grant and Roselyn Russell, "What's the dope?" means "What are the facts?" This demonstrates a curious tripartite evolution of the word "dope": starting in the 1960s and probably until the last four or five years, it referred to illicit drugs of various sorts. It probably still does, at least to some extent, but more recently, it has come to mean "excellent," or "cool." (Not long ago I saw a T-shirt reading "The Pope is Dope," and the wearer took pains to clarify that it was not meant to be insulting or derogatory.)

More twee observations to come.