Our changing language: Hidden meanings and generation gaps

Blogger Steve Kelman has been pondering the ways in our language has changed -- and the generation gaps that result.

What I suspect many people don't think about is that language changes don't just add new words and expressions. Some old ones gradually disappear as well. Older people every once in a while should check to make sure that phrases they might without reflection think of using in, say, the workplace might not be understood by younger listeners.

I suppose it is an occupational disease of professors to care about words -- given that they are so important to what we do. In managing a class discussion, I need to pay attention to the words students use, because words often hide information about how people are thinking.

For example, in a class about the advantages and disadvantages of using lots of rules in the design of government organizations, I ask students to discuss how rules help provide employees with knowledge that helps them do their jobs better. But in answering the question, senior government executives often use words more associated with providing oversight and control of employees (such as "we need consistency") than with providing employees with useful knowledge. These answers are indicative of the reality that the large number of rules in a government environment reflects a lack of trust of employees and a desire to control them, even at the expense of demotivating them and restricting any desire to shine or excel.

At any rate, I bring up my interest in language for a somewhat more light-hearted reason, which is to report that I have had occasion to notice this year that there are a number of words, phrases and references commonly known by an older generation that many young people are unaware of. As I have become more sensitive to this phenomenon, I have asked my younger master's students more and more about examples.

In a recent class, I illustrated the change in language with aphorism, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." People of (more or less) my generation are likely to recognize this reference as a take-off on the phrase of John Paul Jones, the Revolutionary War Navy commander, "We have met the enemy, and he is ours" -- which we all learned in our American history classes. The take-off, as again my generation would recognize, is a quote from the cartoon character Pogo.

Well, I asked my classes about this. A few had heard the phrase, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." But surprisingly few had ever heard of John Paul Jones or knew the phrase he was (in my generation) famous for. Virtually nobody had heard of the cartoon character Pogo.

As another example, I asked my students whether they knew that the phrase "green eyeshade type" refers to an accountant sensitive to the price of everything but the value of nothing -- to use an Oscar Wilde quote that probably few of my students know either. Very few had ever heard this expression.

It is difficult not to be aware of the accretion of new expressions in the English language, often starting as slang but after a while entering into conventional speech -- be it words such as "random" (what my generation would have called "without rhyme or reason") or new phrases such as texting to sexting.

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