Talk about a language barrier. Linguistic evolution? That's redonculous

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Oct 4 13:55:39 UTC 2007

Talk about a language barrier. Linguistic evolution? That's redonculous

By Lisa Pupo

Belts had been loosened and buttons undone. As we shoved our dessert
remains towards the center of the table, my 17-year-old nephew declared:
"Shoddy on the peach pie." Now everyone knows that my mother makes the
best peach pie in the state, and we always argue about the leftovers.
Shoddy? I think not. It turns out he was calling dibs on the remaining
piece of pie, not dissing it. You'd think I'd be able to decode his
vernacular, since I teach hundreds like him every year. But the English
language, especially in the hands of teens, changes more quickly than my
nephew's girlfriends.

We're the antithesis of the French, who guard their language like the
three-headed dog Cerberus protected Dante's entrance to Hell. They've even
invented a special organization to act as their guard dog - the Acadmie
franaise, whose job it is to "work, with all possible care and diligence,
to give our language definite rules and to make it pure, eloquent, and
capable of dealing with art and science." I'd like to see what might
happen if we set 100 American teens loose on L'Acadmie's official
dictionary. I image the French might finally feel our pain - the pain of
trying to follow adolescent language logic, that is.

Last spring, as a group of students filed into my class room, one of the
girls shrieked, "Sick! I just want to vomit!" I whipped out the hall pass
and held it out to her at arm's length. No way was I catching her germs. I
needn't have worried; apparently sick means something is really cool. And
of course anything that incredible makes you want to vomit. It only
follows that hot actually means cool, gnarly translates into awesome, and
gangsta denotes friend. Maybe they're all playing Mad Libs and just
haven't told the adults.

I find it most amusing when they coin words of their own; its sort of like
inventive spelling on steroids. Never heard of redonculous? It means
Messed Up - capital M, capital U. (In case you didn't know, it's a good
thing.) And prostitots are preteen girls who dress beyond their age. Last
year's English class came up with a winner when they decided that
Beowulf's layering of Christian beliefs over ancient pagan traditions
equaled Godfusion. Perhaps it'll make Webster's next edition.

Sometimes language undergoes a temporary throwback, kind of like retro
fashion. When I asked my students about their special brand of teen talk,
they cited nifty, spiffy, and cool beans as examples of modern lingo. Add
neat to that list and we can produce our own version of Woody Allen's
Annie Hall.

Years spent slogging through graduate courses in communication studies
have made me interested in linguistics. This summer, I was the only
American traveling with a group of Brits; Spanish wasn't the only language
I needed help with during those weeks. I got tired; they got knackered.
They thought the scenery was brilliant; to me it was awesome. Their chips
are our fries, their crisps our chips, their biscuits our cookies. By the
time I flew home, friendships had been firmly founded in analysis of the
King's English.

The imprint of the news media in language development is apparent on both
sides of the pond as well. How did we ever get through conversations
without Seinfeld's linguistic shortcut of yada, yada, yada? And even more
intriguing, before Jerry invented the term close talker, did such people

After the "shoddy" family dinner, I questioned my students about my
nephew's choice of words. Apparently I had to go back to the time when
wagons were the main mode of transportation in order to fully understand
the word's evolution, which began with the idea of riding shotgun. As
protection from bandits, the guy next to the driver literally rode with
his shotgun at the ready. This turned into calling shotgun as a way of
declaring the intent to ride up front, which morphed into calling shotty,
which became shoddy since lazy Americans tend not to enunciate.

Checking out language is sweet. Groovy, even. Oh, snap! I've hit my word
limit. If you want to chat, then hit me up and holla back through my


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