Monday, March 05, 2007

Language change - a mehness to society?

With new words and the reasons for their existence high on the agenda for A2 students (and presentations taking place tomorrow and Wednesday – hint hint), this article in The Guardian and this post on The Language Log blog look at the word “meh” and its spread across the internet and into print.

I’m not sure I’d even registered that the word really existed, although it sounds familiar, but apparently it’s an expression of indifference or vague disapproval that’s made its first notable appearance (although this is hotly debated) in The Simpsons and then spread through the power of the constantly hilarious little yellow 4-fingerered fellows to wider society. Nowadays, it seems to occupy the same semantic space as the much more British (and therefore better) “whatever”.

As with so many words that seem to have come about in the last decade or so, it’s not so much the etymology of the word that’s interesting but its rapid spread and the reasons for this. Technology is part of it: the internet, and its massive influence on the speed of change, has to be a significant factor in the spread of new words and new meanings. When you consider that the telephone has only been around for about 130 years and personal computers for 20, you realise that in centuries past, language change could only be as quick as the quickest mode of transport: an airplane, a train, a donkey delivering the mail from one person to another.

So now, with virtually instant communication across continents, new words and new meanings spread like bird flu in a Bernard Matthews slaughterhouse. And words morph into new forms as they are transmitted: “meh” has now moved from its original function as an interjection ( a bit like “ha” or “heh”) and into an adjective (“that’s just so meh”) and now into a noun (“the very meh-ness of it”).

And a special, Haribo-based prize goes to any student who mentions this meh post in their presentation tomorrow or Wednesday.

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Change

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