By Inbal Abarbanel & Ori Manor Zuckerman
“Language is a tool that has been worn into shape by continual use.” writes renowned linguist Dr. Guy Deutscher in his bestseller The unfolding of Language. Deutscher refers to language change as “a constant pressure of effective communication and transmission over the generations.” However, it seems as if lingual modifications don’t only happen across generations, but also across discreet social status classes.
In the dictionary, you’ll probably learn that ridiculous (lexically) has a negative meaning. But nowadays, nearly everyone uses the word “ridiculous” to describe something that is unbelievable. Consider, for a moment, the last time you heard the term cool. . Over the years, the word cool had somewhat of a meaning shift. It has lost its “ridiculous” flair and is more commonly used as an agreeable way to replace “fine” or “ok” (both went through a gradual meaning shift as well, and now convey implicit “passive-aggressive” defiance). In the same vein, perhaps you remember a time when Gucci was solely an Italian luxury fashion house. Today a jacket can be “so Gucci”, which means it is outstandingly stylish.
Like hot buns, the phrases wildly spoken today aren’t those that were popular yesterday. Moreover, using out-of-date language can weaken one’s perceived social status. A new term or way of expression comes into being and seeps into the language of “agents” (early adopters). Early adopters ratify it as a new “legit” term and push it down the social hierarchy pyramid thus making it viral.
When a new term hits a certain threshold of massive adoption, it officially becomes a “buzzword” in its most negative sense: the middle social classes will use it proudly as a virtue signal for being “up-to-date” while at the same time, the early adopters will refrain from using it, as it is now officially a virtue of the masses. They will mock and patronize those who do. Think of the term “out of the box thinking“. It used to be fresh and full of perspective. Today, people who use this term are mocked and ridiculed. And no, not in the awesome sense of the word.
Who are these agents that coin new hip lingos? This landscaping of the informal language typically applies to a particularly confident group of people who “dare” risking their perceived social status for the excitement of stretching established common limits. They let themselves violate the lexical/grammatical boundaries and pick up “broken” expressions into new slang. They try to mint these new terms into the jargon of others. If they’re “cool” enough, in the old sense of “cool” that is (i.e. if they’re socially stronger than the people around them), the coining or transmission of new meaning is more likely to occur. People will copy the new term as a virtue signal and will spread the word thinking that the very use of such innovative wording indicates one’s boldness and daring.
Eventually, the extensive use of a buzzword wears it down. It goes over inflation and loses its value. At this point, the use of buzzwords is no longer as prestigious as it once was. It is stricken from the vocabulary of the masses and the use of the buzzword in question morphs into a semantic tool to ridicule the context.
Evidently, the evolvement of colloquialisms is heel to toe with social ranks. Those who set the tone are those who owe the power of doing so. Their privilege of being mischievous with their vocabulary projects to a dominant privileged social status. Their followers, who adopt their novelties, are insiders, sharing the same circles within them but aren’t competent as their leads. From there on, it belongs to the masses.