Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Weasel Words

I mentioned in someone else's comment box the other day that I didn't know what 'Way to go!' meant. That wasn't quite true. I know how to use it and that it means 'well done' or 'congratulations' or 'good on you'. What I don't know is WHY it means that.
My research is continuing. I've found plenty of people on discussion boards explaining what it means but nobody seems to know why.

Sometimes those of us interested in words and slang have to accept that there's not always a meaningful or rational explanation. Take, for example, those 'reverse meaning' slang expressions like 'wicked' for 'good'. Who first thought of that? We know why some of those arose: it's teenagers creating a private slang for themselves. Once adults cotton on to them they stop using them.
A lot of confusion was caused when kids started using 'gay' to mean 'dull' or 'boring'. Many teachers and other adults mistook this usage for homophobic abuse when it was no such thing (apart from the fact that the word was being given a negative spin).
Most of these terms have a short life. Adults make themselves look foolish when they use them years after they've gone out of fashion. It's the linguistic equivalent of wearing flared trousers (although I have an idea those made a brief re-appearance recently).
The great survivor in youth slang is 'cool'. It must be about 50 years old now and refuses to lie down and die. Sometimes I wish it would when I meet people who say 'cool' in response to every statement.

Still on words, I notice that the BBC now usually uses 'actor' for both sexes. I don't mind if either 'society' or the custodians of Standard English have decided that we should stop using feminine versions of nouns for occupations. But there's inconsistency here. For example, people still say 'waitress' rather than using 'waiter' for both sexes. Why is that? Is it because waiters and waitresses are down near the bottom of the social pecking order so linguistic sexual equality is not thought important? Ironically, waiting has always been a popular fill-in job for out of work actors.
So one can imagine reading the sentence: 'Award-winning actor Julie Jones revealed that she spent a year after drama school working as a waitress in a greasy spoon. "That job was so gay!" she laughed. "But here I am today with an Oscar. Way to go!"'


At 8:02 PM, Blogger The absent referent said...

Was Margaret Thatcher a "prime ministress"? These double standards often seem to come down to power. "Professor" has no feminine in English, but it does in other languages. Not sure why, but one could argue that English-speaking countries are both more egalitarian and more hung-up on the gender-power matrix than Latin countries. One could argue against that, too. And I have to disagree, "gay" is homophobic in the usage you discuss, even if those using it aren't actively being homophobic. It only has a negative spin because of its association with homosexuality. It was a pretty universally positive term when it meant bonny and blithe. I doubt today's youth are going back to that usage and wiping out all knowledge of gay as a pejorative term for homosexual.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

'Gay' came into usage here in the seventies as an alternative to derogatory slang and polysyllabic medical terms. Although in 19th century slang a 'gay woman' was a prostitute.
Yes, the new usage of 'gay' is negative but 'boring' is better than 'an abomination crying out to god for vengeance'. If straight people find my sexuality as boring as I find theirs, I'll settle for that.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger peter said...

Of course some older adults use outmoded terms in a totally fab, ironic way.

Take a look at Breakfast at Tiffany's: (don't really - you'll throw up). Note her frequent use of "jazzy". I bet you can even remember catalogue wallpaper being called jazzy.

Way to go I first saw on IRC around 1999/2000. At first I didn't understand it, so had to deduce from the context. IRC (and possibly other chats) is an influential and early propagator of American idiom and use.

My current fave is "no problem". (Means "yes".) It even has the intensifiers "that's no problem", "(that's) no problem at all", leading up to "that's no problem at all, Peter". It's less than one year old, in Scotland.

"Absolutely" I detest. "Thee" (meaning "the") is horrible, but it's from News presenters and similar, rather than from youth. Similarly "a" rhyming with pay, when it should be hard as in "cat". "Ay news summary"

I can go further. Thee and ay I both heard originally from Lisa Aziz, then with ITV News, now Sky. Spread like wildfire - even reaching old-timers like Sir David Frost.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

It's often shortened to "no probs" down here, or "no prob".
I'm inexplicably irritated by 'sure' pronounced 'Shoo-er', which Blair always does.
And don't start my on 'upspeak'. Has that infected Scotland yet? (Turning every statement into a question).

At 11:18 AM, Blogger peter said...

Shoo-er and poo-er are his County Durham heritage. Seriously! Always make me smile, as the one bit of "finishing school" that didn't work.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger peter said...

Too quick to comment, there I was. Upspeak or HRT (high rising terminals) have been around almost for ever, it seems. They've more or less been and gone in these parts. Written about and blogged to death already.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

You're lucky. Still very much with us down here. Heard a compulsive teenage upspeaker only this week.
By the way, I didn't mean to be sarcastic in your comment box yesterday but I'm waging a one man campaign to preserve the English spelling 'arse' as against the American 'ass'. Lost cause, I know.

At 6:51 PM, Blogger peter said...

Oh no, it was fab. I was thinking how Sandra would do as the Virgin Mary. Great comment. Just because we're both bloggers, don't mean we're joined at the hip. Dude. (I'm a bit Brahms and you know.)


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