30 Dezember 2006

Unheimlicher Wendepunkt/Creepy Turning Point

Reluctant though I am to admit it, the truth is that language does evolve. Over time, the meanings of words may change in subtle shifts or abruptly. Perhaps the most prominent contemporary instance is the linguistic sojourn of the word "gay."

For the benefit of those among you born before 1980 or so: "gay" originally meant "happy," not in the existential sense (i.e., the happiness that always eludes us) but in a simpler way--the state of being cheerful, in a good mood, etc. I can still remember when the newer meaning was vying with the old for dominance; at one point in the mid-1980s, reactionary writer Anthony Burgess declared that advocates for homosexuals' rights ought to be prevented, "by law if need be," from hi-jacking a grand old word in furtherance of their perverted agenda, etc., etc. Well, the chain-smoking Lancashire reactionary died back in 1993, having lost his battle. Doesn't bother me--except in one respect: when the new meaning finally superseded the old, it rendered a lot of poetry and literature meaningless or, at minimum, so asinine-sounding as to be spoiled for future generations. Take, for example, the wonderful old song about Paris:

The last time I saw Paris
Her heart was bright and gay
I saw the laughter of her heart
In every street café.

Today's listeners, in order to appreciate such lyrics at face value, will have to suspend judgment, if not actually suppress the urge to snicker. Furthermore, the status of "gaiety" remains unresolved. We probably would no longer use "gaiety" in the traditional sense, but at the same time it has not accompanied its adjectival counterpart into the world of Gay. The qualities or attributes of being gay are typically referred to by the neologism "gayness." It was Paul Lynde's gayness, not his gaiety, that made him so hilarious on Hollywood Squares ("Which do you prefer, a pixie or a fairy?" "I'll take the fairy.").

And no, I am not gay, though on a couple of occasions I've rented apartments in gay neighborhoods -- if you relocated to a strange city, it's a good idea, because you'll immediately notice that they are invariably safer, cleaner, with the best architecture and restaurants in town. Many years ago, in Dallas, I lived in a prewar building full of gay men who owned lots of purebred poodles. There was one straight, gorgeous woman, but she was the resident fag hag (hey, that's what it's called, okay?) so they wouldn't let me anywhere near her.

Where was I? Oh. . .amateur linguistic forays.

Of perhaps greater import than definitional changes, however, are those in uses and style. One or two of my more enterprising undergraduate students, peeved at what they perceived as my undue rigidity in such matters attempted to enmesh me in what they no doubt regarded as a grammarian's pedantic pettifoggery. (They had never tussled with my grammar school teachers, antediluvian crones educated during the Depression, who would sooner split heads than infinitives.) My own charges whined that, in centuries past after all, double negatives were not invariably rejected as nonstandard. True, but frankly I don't care; after all, these flip-flop girls and shredder boys were submitting their papers to me, not the Guardian of Forever. Nonetheless, just as history may transmute yesterday's terrorist into the future's freedom fighter, time does wreak changes. For example, English used to formulate interrogatories (questions) in a manner akin to German and the Romance languages--that is, a verb followed by "you."

"Arbeiten Sie hier?" --> "Work you here?"
"Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?" -->Want you to sleep with me?"

In English, this form survives in a few fixed, archaic phrases. If you've ever watched legal dramas, you might have noted judges asking juries, "What say you?" Today, of course, English uses the auxiliary "do" to formulate questions. Yet according to an excellent essay in the preface of my old Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, contemporary usage appeared sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century, and for a number of decades, perhaps a century or so, both usages were considered acceptable. Where might current trends eventually lead us? One of American English's ongoing tendencies, it seems to me, is partiality to abbreviating: "noms" for "nominations," "'cakes" for pancakes, "obits" for "obituaries," "reps" for "representatives," "diss" for "disrespect" (a nifty neologism that handily compensated for our lack of a term corresponding to "verachten"), "ep" to replace "episode," and so on. "Pizza pie" became "pizza," "traffic jams" are now simply "traffic" (maybe the "jam" is redundant because it's now essentially one uninterrupted jam). Along similar lines, the interrogatory "do" is implicitly understood and thus more and more frequently omitted:

"Do you prefer Ginger or Maryanne?"
"[Do you] (P)refer Ginger or Maryanne?"

Strangely, this almost takes us back full circle, to the pre-18th century form: "Prefer [you] Ginger or Maryanne?" The modern version has at least one inherent drawback: since it is identical with the command or imperative form ("Prefer Ginger or Maryanne!"), the speaker, in order to avoid ambiguity, has to rely on the rising intonation that indicates a question. Given that "Prefer Ginger or Maryanne" is not, per se, a question, the result will be that more and more people sound like Southerners who put the raised stress at the end of every sentence, declarative or interrogatory: "[Does] [T]hat restaurant have the best barbecue?" Formerly, the omission of the "do" would have unequivocally signaled a declarative statement, and the singular "has" would have been used; the rising stress was simply a Southernism. If the "do" is implicit, however, whether or not the spoken sentence is declarative hinges on the "have," with the result that questions are increasingly being put in the form of ungrammatical declarative statements, and people will also have to spend more time clarifying themselves.

Likewise, perhaps due to the influence of AAVE [African-American Vernacular English], the verb "to be" is being omitted more frequently:

"[Is there a] (P)roblem with that?"
"[Are] you all right?"

If by now you haven't tuned out, fallen asleep or sworn never to read this blog again, you might be asking what occasioned these musings. This morning, I was on the phone giving moral support to a friend who has been unexpectedly required to assume some managerial duties. As I remonstrated to her that she does in fact have authority and ought to exercise it, the evil Bushism "decider" half-involuntarily popped out of my mouth. I caught myself, of course, but it was a defining moment: I myself wasn't entirely certain whether I was being ironically coy or simply using this new "word" in its "correct" sense, i.e., to describe the one who must (or gets to) decide.

Then the real "Aha-experience" revealed itself to me. Arguably, at least some of W's malapropisms, by dint of the presidency's vast influence, perpetuated by extensive media coverage, rapidly ensconcing itself into the "correct" or "received" vocabulary. Recall the way that Homer Simpson's "D'oh" found its way into the OED just a dozen years after the show's debut. If enough people "use" a term, even with derision and scorn, might it, ironically, thereby become acceptable?

But I will never, ever, ever yield on using "impact" as a verb in place of "affect" or "impair," and I will forever cringe at "If I would have went." To invoke the contributions of other statesmen to the American argot--read my lips, for the buck stops here and I have not yet begun to fight the nattering nabobs of nihilism.