It is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Definitions often change due to the force of culture. Take the word “gay,” for example. Etymologists believe the word originated in the late 14th century. For decades, it generally meant “happy” or “cheerful.”
I remember growing up on Bugs Bunny and other older cartoons and giggling as the characters would refer to being “gay” without any implications other than “joyful.” By that time (the ’70s), gay had become more commonly known as a synonym for the adjective “homosexual,” something that began earlier in the 20th century.
In the 21st century, primarily amongst younger people, “gay” means “lame” or “weak” (two other words that slang has claimed and redefined, though the earlier meanings are still understood and used regularly). Like with “retarded” (used similarly as slang), there has been an effort to point out to people that using gay as a synonym for stupid is offensive to homosexuals.
While most reasonable people agree that it’s insensitive, it’s unlikely to exit the slang dictionary in its current state anytime soon. Because once a word begins its evolution, it’s impossible to stop.
The first time many (non-Californian) people probably heard the words “awesome” and “radical” (or “rad”) used to not mean “awe-inspiring” or “departing markedly from the usual” was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or ’70s surfer films. While radical didn’t catch on quite as much nationally, “awesome” has grown to become a term casually overused (by this writer included) to mean “kinda cool.” I’ve seen people complain about the overuse in social media and, technically, the complaints have merit.
But the bellyaching is in vain — “awesome” as a signifier of something mildly interesting is a part of our speech now.
The media is an easy scapegoat for, well, everything nowadays. But you can legitimately blame it for the deteriorating meanings of words like “breaking” (as in “breaking news”) and “exclusive.” While once we perked up at “breaking news” alerts expecting something horrendous had happened, like a terrorist attack or presidential assassination, the craving for faster news and our less attentive viewing habits have made it so a tree falling on a car in the suburbs might qualify for “breaking” status. The suits behind corporate TV news and newspapers know it’s in our nature to pay a little closer attention if “breaking” is attached to a report. It’s probably a good selling point for potential advertisers (“We average 16 breaking news reports every hour!”).
A media “exclusive” is even less meaningful today. Likely because it’s another attention-getting buzzword, media outlets throw the word “exclusive” around with little-to-no justification. Exclusive formerly meant “something you will only see/hear/read here.” Now, exclusive might mean that a story is unique to a particular city or time frame (“We’re the only outlet to report this between 6-6:15 p.m. in all of Hamilton County!”). Or maybe a famous interview subject revealed he had a mole on his butt … exclusively to Us Magazine!
Usually, since media outlets almost never explain how a story is their exclusive, you’re left on your own to figure out what is meant by it. The next time you are at a newsstand (real or cyber), look at the covers of celebrity mags and see how many “exclusive” interviews you can find that overlap with others’ exact same exclusives.
Today’s hottest re-definition is one many find particularly annoying, likely because it hasn’t had the time terms like “awesome” have had to fully integrate themselves into our lexicon. We used to use the word “literally” as a way to assert the truthfulness of our statements — “I almost drowned … no, literally, I was trapped underwater and unable to breathe.”
Today, “literally” is still used to emphasize a point. But, as heard from the mouths of the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and other celebrity dim bulbs, it’s used more to mean “Seriously, guys! Pay attention to me!” If Kim Kardashian stubs her toe, for example, she’d probably say, “I feel like my whole foot was run over by an 18-wheel truck, set on fire and then crushed in a trash compactor — literally!”
It’s pretty funny stuff, particularly when it’s ridiculously over-the-top, like, “I’m literally starving to death.” We might as well laugh at these types of changing meanings. Because there’s no going back once a word or term has reached a certain level of use in our language. Literally.
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: firstname.lastname@example.org