The evolution of language – one English teacher’s view.

Posted: October 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

Man, that was so wicked!

Remember when wicked used to mean something completely different?

From the dictionary :

Wick-ed (adj)

morally bad

: having or showing slightly bad thoughts in a way that is funny or not serious

: very bad or unpleasant


Nowadays it means something completely different, as does cool, sick, boss, bad, dope and numerous other words, along with brand new inventions like reem, peng and jel.

As an English teacher, I get to see the evolution of language every single day. It’s something that is both a joy to watch and absolutely soul destroying. Seeing how young people take existing words and twist them, or invert them, is seeing, first hand, how cultures and societies evolve. It also serves as a stark reminder that what was once considered cool is not, perhaps, not so much anymore. In the same way fashions move on, bands and musical styles appear and fade away, actors and actresses rise and fall, language is in a constant state of flux, being shaped and moulded by increasingly younger group. In one way I think it’s fantastic that things develop continually, on the other hand it reminds me how far away my childhood was and, how all the things I thought would always stay cool have in fact become socially unacceptable.

As I said in a previous blog, I’m 27. 27 is a difficult age to be a teacher. I’m old enough that I’m, pretty much, a generation away from who I teach, so there’s no real danger of them mistaking me for a friend instead of a teacher, but I’m still young enough that I am aware of youth culture in some way, and don’t come across as sounding too much like I’m trying too hard when I use words like ‘cool’ as an adjective.

You have to remember, while the internet is not very old, it’s been around for long enough to have an impact on the new generation. Kids today, particularly in the 11-18 age bracket I teach, have no idea what life was like without the internet. I started secondary school in 1997 and left University in 2007, before taking a year out and going back in 2008 to complete my teaching degree. In that 11 year period the accessibility to the internet absolutely changed education. I teach 17 year olds who can’t imagine a world without Facebook, or YouTube or Wikipedia. When I tell them that Wikipedia was in its infancy when I was doing my dissertation, or that Facebook only appeared during my final year of University they seem completely dumbfounded.

One of the main scourges of my job nowadays is mobile phones. When I was 15 and got my first mobile it could make phone calls, send text messages, create 2 custom ringtones and had 1 game on it – snake. It was barely worth having one at school as you couldn’t do anything with it. In 2013 you can do so much with a phone it’s become just as much a part of a young person’s identity as the clothes they wear or the music they listen to.

The point is, things change. You only have to look at Shakespeare to know that. If language didn’t evolve, we’d all be able to understand what Shakespeare was saying. The theory goes that Shakespeare himself invented nearly 3000 words. If that’s the case, why do we celebrate his inventions and yet denigrate modern language evolution?

Listen, I’m not saying I’m a fan of every single new word that’s created, I’m not. But the day that I try and suppress the evolution of language, the day that I try and stop young people from using whichever words or phrases happen to be in their vernacular is the day I need to stop being a teacher.

And that rather long winded introduction leads me to the main point of this particular blog – the origin of insults.

I see a lot of stuff in the papers and online forums about how words like ‘gay’, ‘pussy’ and ‘sissy’ are more offensive when used as insults due to their origins and what they imply. I’ll give some examples:

“That shirt is so gay”

“Stop being a pussy”

“You’re such a sissy”

I’ll take a second to just deviate from the script here. I’ll come back to those three words in a minute, but in order to make my point clear I need to include something else in order to relate. I am not religious. I don’t believe in God or any higher being as religion dictates, but I’m not completely atheist. I don’t know what I believe, so I guess that makes me agnostic. Point is, despite the fact I have no affiliation with any religion, I still used the word ‘god’ in everyday exchanges. “Thank God for that!” “For God’s sake!” “God, you’re boring.” “Bless you.” (I realise the last one doesn’t have God in it, but the sentiment, when fully expressed, is ‘God bless you’ so the intention is there.)

Even though I don’t believe in God, I still use these phrases. I’m not literally thanking God and I’m certainly not asking God to bless whoever may have just sneezed. When I say ‘bless you’ I am simply speaking a polite acknowledgement of the sneeze. When I say ‘for God’s sake’ I am expressing anger or frustration at a particular event. Similarly, ‘thank God for that’ is usually spoken out of relief.

What I’m trying to say is that, despite what the original meaning of those phrases may have been, modernity has changed them to the point that I, as a non religious person, use them almost on a daily basis as mere expressions.

And that’s where I come to on ‘gay’, ‘pussy’ and ‘wimp’. As much as they may have originated from offensive slurs, and I’m by no means saying that these words don’t still hold that sort of power if used by ignoramus bigots whose sole purpose is to offend and cause pain, they have been transformed, evolved, into simple expressions of distaste or frustration.

Simon Amstell once made a joke on Never Mind the Buzzcocks (a UK music tv quiz) in which he said something along the lines of:

“Somebody got into trouble for using the word ‘gay’. But she was using it in the new, cooler way meaning rubbish. And anyone who’s offended should jew off, and stop being so black about it.”

That sentiment is exactly the way I feel about the evolution of language. As dark a place as the origins of these words come from, and as offensive as they still may be in some contexts, you can’t disregard any and all uses of words that may, possibly, someday cause offense to someone who happens to be listening. Describing something as ‘gay’ to mean rubbish doesn’t mean I hold homosexuals in a lower standard than heterosexuals, it doesn’t mean I associate being gay with being a lesser type of human, in the same way I don’t use the word ‘pussy’ because it implies women are cowards or lesser beings who deserve our contempt.

I don’t use the word ‘dick’ or ‘nob’ or’bellend’ as an insult because I find the male penis to be worthy of ridicule, I use it because it’s a short, sharp way of letting someone know you find them to have behaved in a way that is piss poor.

It’s a problem a lot of comedians face. Can they use the word ‘mental’ as an adjective or noun if there’s a slight, miniscule chance someone in the audience, who possible may have a history of mental illness, gets offended. Can people be that self censoring? Is it possible to go through life filtering everything we say on the off-chance, the slightest off-chance that someone may overhear and get offended?

It’s impossible to do that. I used to get offended. A lot. I used to hate the word ‘cunt’ and vowed never to use it. Not because I hate women and the use of the word cunt as an insult is gendered in some way, but because, as a word, much like ‘prick’, it just sounds pretty horrible. It’s one of those words that has an unfortunate combination of letters that just make it a horrible sounding word, not because of the meaning or what it implies, simply because of the phonics of the English language. Now, I appreciate everyone’s rights to say what they want. That doesn’t mean I find it acceptable for people to swear in front of children, I’m still traditional enough in that sense, and I’m still free to think they’re a dick for doing it, but acting offended doesn’t actually do anything, it doesn’t do the world a favour, it doesn’t make it a better place, it doesn’t actually make you morally superior. What it does do is show a complete lack of awareness of other people and how they behave, instead expecting everyone to hold up to your levels or morality, which just isn’t possible.

I hate the words ‘reem’, ‘peng’ and ‘jel’, and I still value the full and robust variations of the English language. I still have to teach lessons on spelling, grammar and punctuation and other oddities like homophones. I don’t do it simply because it’s my job, I do it because I truly believe a firm grasp of the English language is one of the most important things you can have in life (for English speaking countries anyway, in other countries I’d apply the same sentiments to any native language). But that doesn’t mean I will stifle anybody who comes into the classroom with a new word, or tell them never to use it. Unless they are using that word in a deliberately derogatory manner, there’s no reason for me to suppress language evolution. There is reason for me to keep that language expressed in full, grammatically correct sentences, nothing more.

I love my job, I love the English language. I can’t claim to know every rule pertaining to its use. One thing I do know, however, is that language will never stop evolving. It will change, it will be moulded by whichever generation comes next, it will continue to change and adapt. Some words will disappear, some won’t. I’m pretty sure that I’ll grow to hate some of the newer words that appear, much like I do now, but I will never suppress it. I just hope others share my sentiment.


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