Myths of Language Change, Part 3: It’s Never Been That Way Before & But It Makes Sense

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

This resistance usually takes one of several classic forms. In this series of articles, we well examine each of these classic errors of resistance. The next few in the series are:

It’s Never Been That Way Before

Spike...You’re still trying to mack on Buffy? Wake up already. Never gonna happen.
—Xander Harris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

One type of error is to assume that because one has not noticed a word before that it is new. Such is the case with the slang verb to mack. As used in the above quote, the verb means to make a sexual advance. It has only come into mainstream use recently, having been used in hip-hop circles since the early 1990s.

But mack is actually much older than hip-hop. It is found in jazz slang as well and is recorded as far back as 1887 with the sense of to pimp. The word may even be centuries older. It could be a clipping of mackerel, an archaic underworld slang term for a pimp that was current from the 15th century up until about 1700. And in turn, this word is from the Old French macquerel.

(It is not certain whether the modern word mack stems from the old mackerel. There is a 180-year gap between the obsolescence of the old term and the appearance of the new one, which casts some doubt on a relationship. But given the synonymous meanings, a relationship cannot be absolutely dismissed.)

Mack is by no means atypical. Slang words often circulate among certain groups or within particular regions for decades or even centuries before bursting forth into the mainstream. Just because the word is new to an individual or even to mainstream discourse, doesn’t mean the word itself is new. You might think this is simply a trivial error of dating, but underlying it is a fundamental misunderstanding of how words form and enter the mainstream vocabulary.

Words are not coined one day and spread across the country and the world overnight. It takes time. Nor can someone go out and attempt to get people to adopt a certain word or phrase. Such an attempt is doomed to failure. Words are usually coined and used by specific groups as slang or jargon or regional colloquialisms. Gradually, if the word continues to be used by the group (and most coinages die a quick death here), eventually more and more people will hear it. Writers and speakers from outside the group will start to use the word, at first to evoke the slang or regional dialect, but eventually the affectation will wear off and writers will use it in regular discourse. Dictionary editors start to take notice of it and the word is on its way into the general vocabulary. This process takes time. The word must percolate in our linguistic subconscious before boiling up into the mainstream.

Of course pop culture can create instant catchphrases. The 1996 movie Jerry Maguire coined and popularized the catchphrase show me the money. Overnight, people all over the United States were repeating it. But by the movie’s second week at the box office, the phrase was tiresome. And if you use it today, people will look at you strangely. It was a fad, not a lasting coinage. The big splash was actually self-defeating. There was no in-crowd that was using the phrase and it became passé before it had time to catch on.

Word coinages are kind of like disease. Ebola makes headlines, but it kills too quickly and burns itself out. Meanwhile, the common cold slowly circulates in the disease pool, too low key for most people to notice, but it is the virus that everyone catches.

But it makes sense

A false hypothesis is better than none at all. The fact that it is false does not matter so much. However, if it takes root, if it is generally assumed, if it becomes a kind of credo admitting no doubt or scrutiny--that is the real evil, one which has endured through the centuries.
—Johann Wolfgang Goethe

By far, the most common methodological error that amateur word sleuths make regards standards of evidence. Someone comes up with a hypothesis that sounds plausible, but fails to back it up with any evidence. Explanations for words or phrases like the whole nine yards may be interesting, but without actual evidence to support them they cannot be considered correct.

The gold standard for etymological evidence is a citation of use. Let’s continue with the whole nine yards as an example. The phrase first appears in American slang use in the mid-1960s. Other than that, nothing is known of its origin. What nine yards refers to is simply not known. It is not enough to simply come up with an explanation that sounds plausible, you must find early citations of use that support the hypothesis. If, for instance, you want to prove that the whole nine yards is a reference to the length of a formal Scottish kilt, you need to find someone (or preferably multiple people) using the phrase in the mid-1960s or earlier in reference to kilts or, since all the known early uses of this phrase are American, at least from a Scottish source.

Of course this creates a bias toward written works and against oral traditions, but this is unavoidable even if we include letters, diaries, and other unpublished works. Oral traditions simply don’t survive intact. Even words and phrases that arose within living memory need written documentation because memory is malleable and subject to change. Someone may remember their grandmother saying the whole nine yards back in the 1920s, but in reality their memory may be putting words into her mouth that she never uttered.

The best research tools are those that include citations of usage. Dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and the Dictionary of American Regional English all include verified examples of usage through the decades and centuries.

And while we’re on the subject of sources, beware anyone who quotes “Webster’s dictionary.” Webster’s is not a trademarked term and any dictionary can bear that name. The original dictionary of that name is Noah Webster’s 1828 tome. Since then, there have been literally hundreds of dictionaries published under that name. Some, like those produced by the publishing house Merriam Webster, are excellent. Others are simply downright bad, containing false and misleading information. At best, a quote of “Webster’s” is simply unhelpful—you just can’t figure out what source is being referenced.

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