WARNING: This post contains references to homosexuality. There is nothing graphic, but it acknowledges the existence of the lifestyle. Proceed at your own risk.
By the time you've been around for six decades, you have garnered enough experience to see trends in action. One that has caught my ear, and driven me to distraction is the trend of Word Mutation. I first noticed this in the early 1970s, as it was practiced by attorney-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell. Howard was the first big personality to make his mark on Monday Night Football, and also was a tireless promoter of Mohamed Ali's career.
For those too young to have had the pleasure, Howard was a stentorian courtroom orator who brought his melodramatic delivery to the halftime highlights. He had a tendency to wax poetic about shut-down defenses, and the word he beat to death was "awesome." Particularly "awesome" were the weekly performances of Dick Butkus, "Mean" Joe Green, and Curly Culp, to name a few.
When I was a child, awesome meant, well, awesome. It was a useful word describing a level of excellence midway between fabulous and superb, and when you heard it, you knew you were about to hear about something awesome. Nowadays, stemming directly from this overuse in the '70s (which Howard didn't, couldn't have done alone; he had a lot of help), awesome is pretty much synonymous with barely adequate. You can even hear it used as a joke to describe pathetic ineptitude.
I call this Word Inflation, and awesome is a great example of how television can influence the way we use language. But television runs a poor second to the instant social media that pervades every aspect of life here in the 2000s. The single worst offender that I have yet to see is the word friend. Friend used to mean someone that you loved like a close sibling, not because you had to, but because it was such an enjoyable and fulfilling thing to do. I know that when I say, "I am your friend," what I mean is that I will step in front of a bullet for you; I have twelve close friends, eleven of whom are my spouse or blood relatives. But what everyone else seems to mean by friend is that they've clicked you on Facebook. The number of "friends" a person has is a body count, a row of trophies that simply must be larger than yours. When someone says they have over 200 close friends, it's a pretty safe bet that they're including the kid who bagged their groceries at the store, and the teenage girl who sold them a ticket when they went to the movies. The word has lost all the rich connotations of its history through our own misuse, and when somebody tells you, "I am your friend," it's probably worth your while to find out just what they mean by that.
I define Word Mutation to be when the meaning of a word is deliberately changed before our eyes to mean something that was never intended. Before I get started on the prime example, gay, I'm going to make a statement of disclaimer. I'm not going to mince any words; all I ask is that you read the whole statement before you kick me in the crotch: As a straight man, I find pretty much everything that male homosexuals do to and with each other to be thoroughly repulsive. One of the things that I find more repulsive is telling someone else that they are not entitled to the basic rights that I enjoy because they don't live like I do. Hopefully, everyone is clear on that. Feel free to ask if you aren't.
Gay, like awesome, was at one time a useful little word that described a condition of happiness somewhere between giddy and atwitter. Now it describes a male homosexual, and there is no gray area where it can be used in any other connotation. This is an example of a word that was shanghaied by a vocal minority, and hammered into a completely new form right under our noses. I can certainly appreciate that no one enjoys being called a "fag" or a "queer." There is no way to spin those to make them sound pleasant, and a non-pejorative word was certainly needed, but come on, fellas. The word for a female homosexual, "lesbian," has stood unchanged since before I was born, and no one mistakes it for anything else; I had my mouth washed out with soap at the age of six for repeating it, and it was another ten years before I found out why. Did you have no imagination, or did you seize that word on purpose as a show of empowerment? By the way, the word still turns up in its original meaning in old songs and movies from my youth and before, and I have to confess that it still reduces me to stitches when one of those wavy-haired dandies from a '50s drama says, "Frank certainly seems gay today." But really...
A word in the process of being changed as I write this is collectible. Where "gay" was changed because there was a social need, collectible is being changed because there is a need by greedy bastards to separate you from your money. Collectible has always been an adjective, as, "Those state quarters are collectible." In a process that has been visible for more than a decade, it is well on its way to becoming a noun, as, "Those state quarters are collectibles." Pick up almost any magazine and open it at random. You won't have to turn too many pages before you see an advertisement for some worthless piece of garbage that you wouldn't bend over to pick up if you saw it lying in the street, and the biggest word in the ad is COLLECTIBLE! This is an almost subliminal attack on your sense of values, an attempt to make you think that this thing (usually a small figurine) that you wouldn't put a dime in a gumball machine to get somehow has intrinsic value. The reason this has been able to get traction among consumers is that, in a sense, what they are saying is true; anything can be collected. But let me tell you something. You can spray lacquer on every dump your Golden Retriever takes, and arrange them on the shelf in chronological order. That is certainly a collection, but it doesn't mean that it has any monetary value, nor indeed that anyone will ever want to see it...
Consumer culture is basically a war between the untrained and relatively unsophisticated consumer who is trying to stretch an increasingly inadequate paycheck to meet his needs, and the highly trained and aggressive advertising sharks of Madison Avenue, whose mission in life is to take everything this consumer has. One technique they have mastered is really rather simple: They bludgeon us mercilessly with a word or term until we believe that what they are describing is desirable. There is no greater example of this than the SUV. Our local NPR station has a motto that goes, "If you don't have an opinion, someone else will have one for you," and the sales of SUVs are a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
Early in the 1970's, gas shortages and high prices killed the great American muscle car and ushered in an era of fuel efficient (for the time!) compacts that were long on utility, but short on character. About a decade later, Detroit and Tokyo realized that they could make much more money if they could sell everyone a delivery van. Hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into the advertising machine, and out came ad after ad after ad extolling the virtues of the Sport Utility Vehicle, briefly shortened to Sport Ute, and finally the abbreviation we all know so well today. They pounded and pounded and pounded away until they somehow convinced a nation that had been in love with the Mustang and the Camaro that these nine-ton urban assault vehicles were attractive performance cars. We, too lazy or preoccupied to be bothered to think about what they were saying, swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker.
So today, in the late summer of 2011, we see 60%+ of America's soccer moms driving around in armored personnel carriers that they in no way need, that cost twice as much as a sensible car of similar value to buy, to insure, to fuel, to maintain, all money that comes directly out of her family's budget. But, hey, the car company that sold it to her is happy, and if she is too, then who's hurt? By the way, I suspect this phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining why Kim Kardashian and those drooling idiots on Jersey Shore are celebrities...
I'll leave you with this story of how social media is changing the basic infrastructure of emotion itself: About six months ago, I was watching a YouTube video of a kid who ate the shiveck on a skateboard. He wasn't injured, but he was badly embarrassed, and I must confess that I found it hilarious. As did all his friends who were present on the video, but as the pack of insensitive teenagers burst into spontaneous laughter, one kid, instead of laughing, shouted, "L-O-L!"
Now, folks, I don't begin to possess the predictive skills to guess how it could get any stupider, but I'm reasonably sure that it will. To those substantially younger than myself I say, it's your language. Defend it if it means anything to you. To those of my own generation, I realize that it's social suicide to stand in front of this tidal wave of fatuousness. I suggest that you need a defense mechanism, and as a starting point, here is mine: I constantly remind myself that I am a tourist here; I came here with nothing, and I will be leaving with nothing. Once you can master that attitude, it frees you up to enjoy the cabaret, and occasionally point and laugh, which is sort of what I'm doing here...
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!