Last week, Gawker Editor Max Read decreed that the site’s writers need to sound more grown-up. The problem would appear to be an overindulgence in, generally, “internet slang.” Read’s list of no-nos included epic, pwn, +1, derp, OMG, WTF, FTW, lulz, “win” and amazeballs, with the idea that one cannot use their ilk and sound like “regular adult human beings.”
Read’s in tricky territory, though, because so much of what feels slangy today is tomorrow’s “regular adult human being” language. To be sure, I would put more money on some of Read’s words than others, but then one never knows. As odd as it is to imagine serious people saying FTW (“for the win”) over breakfast in 2050, imagine living in the 1830s and imagine a world in which one regularly hears “O.K,” which started as affectionate initials for Martin Van Buren’s nickname “Old Kinderhook” and got a boost from standing for a hypothetical attempt by unlettered Andrew Jackson to write “all correct,” “oll korrect.” Surely no one then imagined that 185 years later we would be using the word as a synonym for, of all things, “yes.” Even jolly little “amazeballs” might seem less evanescent if we consider that the use of “ass” with adjectives—big-ass, lame-ass—seems to be with us forever, and feels less connected with the gluteal region by the year.
But where Read really risks looking a tad quaint is with his subtler concerns—the idea that “massive” and “epic” are overused rather than simply trending the way words have always done. Read gives a charmingly baroque thesaurus-style list of available synonyms for massive. But is this concern much different from the regret, voiced by eighteenth-century diarist Hester Piozzi, that people were increasingly saying “feeling” instead of “sentiment”? She didn’t much like it—to her, feeling was an action while sentiment was a concept.
All of us have visceral sentiments about words. I for one find “fridge” irritating, for no reason I can articulate—and I am well aware that the battle is lost, essentially because there exists no valid reason for my tetchy response other than some long-lost associations. If we are to formally pronounce a word “bad,” we’d better have solid reasons. Otherwise, we end up looking like, say, Richard Grant White in 1872.
For this literary critic the problem was “standpoint.” He just didn’t like it—and for what one might call reasons. “Granting for a moment that stand-point may be accepted as meaning standing point, and that when we say, from our stand-point, we intend to say from the point at which we stand, what we really mean is, from our point of view, and we should say so,” he wrote in Words and Their Uses. Why? “Stand-point, whatever the channel of its coming into use, is of the sort to which the vulgar words wash-tub, shoe-horn, brew-house, cook-stove, and go-cart belong, the first four of which are merely slovenly and uncouth abbreviations of washing-tub, shoeing-horn, brewing-house, and cooking-stove …”
Yes, Mr. White—Shakespeare scholar (!) who warns us from the Grant Administration that washtub “isn’t a word” or is at least not something Read’s “regular adult human beings” would utter—closed by explaining that these compound words were properly formed when they conveyed a X of Y or X for Y construction. So:
rain-bow, bow of rain; bread-knife, knife for bread; house-top, top of house; dancing-girl, girl for dancing; and standing-point, point for or of standing; and so forth. But by no contrivance can we explain stand-point as the point of, or to, or for, stand.
Obviously this cannot stand as a reason for us to let go of “standpoint,” which we now consider perfectly ordinary.
Of course, one’s problem with a word sometimes has to do with sensing a whiff of parochialism about it, as if its “proper” place is with a certain set, not a general sphere. So, maybe “epic” and “massive” have a LOL-ish, online feel at present, and therefore aren’t “adult language.” Right—just like in 1826 an earnest book called The Vulgarities of Speech Corrected taught us that “ditto” was a word best kept among the lowly class of mercantile stenographers. These things change; we are safest thinking of any word’s current signification as temporary.
Hester Piozzi, who “didn’t like” “feeling” over “sentiment,” is best known today as someone who helped to document the life of Samuel Johnson, author of the foundational dictionary of the English language. Johnson started the book hoping to arrest the English language’s forward movement, but by the time he was finished he realized it was a fruitless task—or that he was, as it were, chasing a bow of rain.