As we have discussed before, many of the changes in English – or any language – come about as a result of frequent misuse due to people not knowing exactly what something means but using the word anyway.
Another agent of change, though, is the playful subverting of words by young people. This can probably be traced back centuries, but for the purposes of this article, let’s begin in the 1960s.
Someone somewhere took the underused word fabulous and gave it a new lease of life with different connotations. It was originally the adjective of the word fable, meaning a story designed to create wonderment in the reader, particularly children. So if something was fabulous it was as if from a wonderful story.
The impact of The Beatles reinforced the new youth category of teenagers, and they, seeking to establish themselves as a group unconnected with children and, heaven forbid, adults, needed its own vocabulary. While their parents persisted with words such as super and , indeed, wonderful, the image-makers of the teenagers (probably grownups, in fact, working as journalists and advertising copywriters) wanted something more in keeping with their brave new world. So, enter fabulous, abbreviated to fab, and then groovy and all the other hippy verbal manure.
A small group at my school took to saying things were ted when they meant excellent. I don’t know where that came from, but it didn’t catch on.
Fast forward to the 21st century and fab and groovy are only ever used ironically, while the hunt is on for something original for da kids to say. And so came random, meaning … it’s hard to say, really. People just seem to enjoy using the word.
And then there was quality, used as a term of general approval.
Meanwhile, the humble word like had spread like chlamydia as a universal substitute for, like, a pause while we think. It had also mutated, clinging to personal pronouns and verbs to replace expressions such as so I said or this was his reply. I’m like “Did you know she’s seeing Jack?” And he’s like “Whatever”.
There’s another one. Whatever can now mean I don’t care or that’s fine with me.
At the more serious end of the spectrum, the arts community took a word which used to mean nervous and made it a description of a work of visual, literary or other art which is not comfortable to see, read, listen to etc. Edgy probably came via cutting edge, which itself had been trendy for a while but needed a trim and a bit of wax or gel to bring it truly up to date.
What’s next? This column can only comment on things that it comes across, and that is largely British English, so if you have anything to report, please feel free to email your observations to the address on the contact page..