Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Watching Your Words

If you've got teenagers, I probably don't need to tell you that 'random' and 'gay' don't mean what they used to. If you don't have teenagers, consider yourself informed.

It took me by surprise at first. "I don't like her," my fifteen-year-old sniffed about a former friend. "She's gay." Since I haven't taught my daughter to be homophobic and the girl in question has several boyfriends, I expressed surprise and dismay. My child looked at me as though I were too pathetic for words. "Mom," she said in her most maddening talking-to-an-idiot voice, "I don't mean that."

For lexicographers I suppose, it's all in a day's work. I remember my parents' confusion and irritation when 'gay' ceased to mean 'Brilliantly colored' or 'carefree and merry' and became simply 'homosexual.' Now 'homosexual' has to get bumped back one as 'unpleasant' becomes definition number one. If I ever have grandchildren, I'll bet by the time they're teenagers 'gay' will be used to describe things like garden parties and French ponies again.

Irritatingly enough, 'random' means just the same thing as 'gay' now does: 'unpleasant' or 'repugnant.' This also makes for confusion. Consider the following: "Today, this random man came up to us and asked us what time it was." If you hear a teenager say something like this, it does not mean that the man in question appeared in a haphazard manner, it means that your teenager considered him unpleasant.

And then there's that wonderful catch-all 'whatever.' I couldn't understand this one at first. I would seem to be winning an argument, making points that my daughter could hardly refute, marshaling evidence that I knew to be convincing and persuasive. And she would give me a hard look, turn on her heel, and fire back that one word: "Whatever." Now I've figured it out: when you're quarreling with your kid and she says "Whatever," it means that she's lost. And she knows it.

They say that having kids keeps you young. Personally, I have my doubts about that. But it certainly makes you watch your words.



Kim Ayres said...

The older kids are no longer teenagers and have left home. The younger ones are not quite teenagers yet, so my only source of the development of the English language has been what I find on other blogs.

It took me a while to realise that 'gay' was now a derogatory term, but not in an un-PC way. I didn't know about 'random'.

However, my 11 year old son did come out with "stop dissing my hair" when we were complaining that it looked a mess and really should be cut. I've since told him to stop dissing his mother when he complains about any instructions she's given him.

Mary Witzl said...

Good for you, acquiring kid lingo, Kim. I am doing my best, but 'random' for me will always mean haphazard and 'gay' will always be the preferred term for homosexual.

That said, I think that 'diss' is a very useful word as it fills a linguistic gap. I am on good terms with the word 'diss' and happily use it myself. I'm all the happier to use 'diss' because it makes me feel a tiny bit more cool. It's a bit like actually enjoying the music of relatively new bands like Foo Fighters and not-so-archaic ones like Rammstein. Plus, you have the fun of seeing your kids cringe with embarrassment when you use it.

Kim Ayres said...

Ah, Rammstein. Did you read my blog post on them (Rammstein)?

Mary Witzl said...

Oddly enough I hadn't, but now I have.

We first heard about Rammstein from friends of ours in Wales, the wife being crazy about them. My first thought was that they looked worryingly like skinheads, but then I listened to their music. And I can't get over the fact that I like it, but I do. I'm thrilled: this is as close as I'm going to get to being cool, and I'm just glad I've had this chance.

Our kids like all sorts of weird music, including the old stuff we occasionally play. When they were tiny, I remember doing a double-take once when I heard the eldest singing 'Downpressor Man' -- she was three at the time -- with a credible Jamaican accent.

Brian said...

Aha , I cry -- wicked! and even sick both of which puzzled me for a while , as the grandchildren tossed them about in what seemed a haphazard way . However , I now simply look at them with a slightly supercilious sneer when they use a newly developed slang term . I am too old a dog to learn new tricks with words which die out as quickly as they are coined.

I have little desire to be cool , either , as it smacks somewhat of pretentiousness in a bald old coot.

It's fun to hear you discourse on words !

Mary Witzl said...

It is interesting to know that 'wicked' and 'sick' are now used this way by kids in America, the U.K. and Australia. Trends spread fast in this day of cheap air travel -- and Hollywood has had a huge influence too.

I agree with you that using the words yourself smacks of pretentiousness -- and it can get you in trouble unless you do it perfectly. Even someone who is in their thirties can misuse one of these words even just a little and earn the scorn of a teenager.

I figure I'll just earn my kids' scorn the easy way -- by being a parent.

problemsecretary said...

personally i cringe whenever i hear someone use the word gay in a derogatory manner. it is too closely connected to defining homosexual, and so i don't believe it is a very good word to throw around in a derogatory manner, it's insulting.

Mary Witzl said...

Problem Secretary -- It makes me cringe, too. In fact, when I first started hearing my kids using it this way, I gave them hell. They angrily denied homophobia, and since both of them have friends who have either come out or are otherwise unabashedly what I still call gay, I didn't know what to think. Until I asked other mothers and they confirmed that the meaning of 'gay' had shifted -- and then I realized that the majority of kids were using the word to mean 'inferior' or 'derogatory.' Including one of the eldest's friends who is very obviously, proudly, and publicly gay (in the old-fashioned sense).

I still use 'gay' in the sense of the seventies -- I always will. When I think something is sub-standard, the word 'crappy' will do nicely for me, or in polite society something more high-brow.