How the English language continues to shape, and be shaped by, society.

The English language: a language so vast and mutable that to count its number of words is nigh on impossible. It assimilates, adapts and recycles words and phrases from foreign and earlier incarnations of language, such as “genre” or “cool”, and creates a smorgasbord of words that are the exact same, but contextually different – “linguistic flexibility”, if you will. For example, I remember a time in the innocent days of my childhood in which the simple word “it” could not be uttered without the meaning being construed as “making babies” (or at least the vague understanding nine year olds have of this phenomenon), and being met with tittering and teasing. My friends and I have since grown in maturity (and knowledge) and no longer find the simple, innocent word a taboo – and yet, that word has not changed in meaning. But perhaps it is our understanding of the word that has changed? And if so, why has this happened?

As the English language evolves, the use and understanding of words and phrases ebb and flow, with their meanings and contexts being reformed and recreated, making English both metaphorically “alive” and subtly revealing information about society. Take, for example, the words “noble” and “poor”. The first means “of the nobility; having high moral qualities; impressive”, whilst the latter means “having little money; unproductive; inadequate; inferior”. The two terms have different associations; “noble” has positive connotations whereas those of “poor” directly contrast these. This was formally observed by Nietzsche as setting both a social and moral distinction between the nobility and the commoners, which gives a telling insight into how society was riddled with class prejudices in the 1800s, through language, just as it is now: if people stop to think about it.

For better, or for worse, I am a person who pedantically (and with a near prudish sense of political-correctness) does think about it. Why are these particular words chosen? And what do these words and sayings truly say about our societal and cultural beliefs?

When I was little, my mother would drag me out into the fresh air to make me exercise and play games – one of which was playing “catch”. My mother (an established tomboy in her childhood) was adept at the activity, whilst I was rather pathetic, thus leading her to taunt me, saying that “I threw like a girl”. I replied that I was, in fact, a girl – so it made sense that I threw like one. But still, I could not help but feel insulted and confused. Insulted, because I knew she jokingly meant it as an insult; and confused because I did not understand why it was an insult.

What did it mean?

It could have meant that boys were far superior in their throwing abilities to girls. Which may be true – at least it was in my case –  but even so, how did comparing one’s abilities to that of a girl become an insult?  In fact, when did being a girl become an insult? Perhaps to men, it is, but when I am told to “man-up” , if I am nervous or upset about something, apart from making me feel highly indignant, it makes me feel that there is a certain image portrayed for men and women that to me seems slightly backwards for our day and age.

Let us also take, for example, our modern usage of the word “gay”. How typical and obvious, you may think –  “gay” of course used to mean “fun, and happy and all things merry”, but nowadays is synonymous with “homosexual”. I am, of course, repeating what many people are aware of. However, in recent times, the context in which this word is used has slightly altered in a manner I can only describe as unnervingly insidious. Frequently I hear situations, actions and people being called “gay” – and not in the original sense of the word, but in a negative, abusive, sense of the word. In lieu of huge developments in gay rights and societal acceptance of homosexuality, I find this development rather surprising, and frankly, it makes me wonder: how has our understanding of the word “gay” changed, and what does this say about society’s true feelings on homosexuality?

I have been known to pick up on tiny, apparently insignificant details and over-analyse them, which, in my politically-minded way, I may have done here. However, I will point out that with our language, with its innumerable word count, where there are multiple synonyms for many words: how is it that we manage to transmogrify certain terms from their original use, when there are dozens of words which are more appropriate? Or perhaps it is more prudent to ask – why these words?  

It may be that the class prejudice defined within the recreated meaning of “noble” has lost its potency now that the nobility’s importance has been downgraded to being novelty tourist magnets. It may be that society is hugely more accepting of individual choice. And it may be that men are better at throwing balls and are generally stronger than women; while women define their own version of strength through flourishing in male-dominated fields as well as in traditional roles. But I cannot help but ponder over society’s actions of inclusiveness and understanding, and our use of language – and wonder why the two do not seem to match up? Was Nietzsche correct, that language usage and meaning is based on society’s preconceptions? Or is this just a coincidence? And if we are still labouring under past generations’ prejudices, which manifest through our words rather than actions – will they ever change? Or is this just part of being human?


Jessica R. Caselton

Image credit – Twice25