A New York Times article from 1977 article rolled across my screen recently (courtesy of Mark Harris). It concerns language change and boy is it a doozy. The article asked members of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel to give their comments on some recent developments in English. Let’s take a look.Continue reading “How NOT to talk about language change”
On the one hand nerd can definitely still be an insult. Consider this clip of the Philadelphia Flyers player Travis Konecny chirping the Pittsburgh Penguins player Evgeni Malkin last year (the relevant bit comes around 38 seconds in):
(I can neither confirm nor deny whether I like watching Penguins players getting chirped)
Konecny clearly uses nerd as an insult. Yes, he qualifies it by saying “ya fucking nerd,” but he also calls Malkin just “you nerd”. Now, despite what you may think of Penguins players, Malkin is probably the opposite of the traditional definition of a “nerd” – he’s an elite athlete. (But maybe he’s a hockey nerd???)
On the other hand, might not be using nerd to be an insult much anymore. Earlier this year, Dr. Lisa Davidson tweeted about whether geek and nerd are humblebrags.
This led to some discussion which you should check out. The idea is that maybe the word nerd has changed from something that is definitely negative into something that is maybe positive. Before you confirm your intuitions, keep reading. I thought checking a corpus would be good to answer this question (you know, because I’m a corpus linguist). I decided to check the iWeb corpus because it is unedited and so should give us an idea of how nerd is used “in the wild”. The iWeb corpus is very large (14 billion words) and contains language from websites in 6 English-speaking countries (US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) from 2017. There are 38,554 instances of nerd in the corpus. So I took a random sample of 500. Go here to automatically search for “nerd” on the iWeb corpus, and here for an overview of the corpus (PDF).
Here is my sample of nerd instances in the iWeb corpus as an .xlsx file. (The corpus sample only gave me 499 for some reason, so I went and grabbed the first result in the listings to make my list 500.)
Over on the Stroppy Editor blog, Tom Freeman has written a response to Lionel Shriver’s article in Harper’s complaining about semantic drift. You should go check Freeman’s article out here.
I want to point out two especially great part’s in Freeman’s post. First, Freeman starts his post by boiling down what these language complaints are really about:
The remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.
Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.
I tell my students something similar. The people who complain about language change are often the same people who are no longer in their 30s with their lives ahead of them. They’re in their 50s or 60s now and they’re recognizing that they are being replaced whether they like it or not. Life in your 20s and 30s seems great – you don’t have as many responsibilities, you still have your youth – of course the world and everything in it should stay the same, including the language rules that you learned. But it doesn’t. You get older. The world changes. And language changes. How dare they?
Freeman also gives the idea that dictionaries should be thought of as guidebooks, not gospels:
For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.
The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.
That’s a very good point. Go read the rest of Freeman’s article here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/how-do-you-cope-when-everyones-usage-is-wrong/