Evolution of Language: Idiomatic Degradation

One day I was riding the subway, listening but not-listening to two guys talk about their workplace. I wished they'd be quiet so I could read my book in peace, but then something one of them said really grabbed my ear. He said with chagrin that their office was just a "doggy-dog world".

I was pretty much gobsmacked by this utterance. I mean, I knew what he meant. The context made the meaning unmistakable. He clearly meant a "dog-eat-dog" world. But that's not what he said.

The origin of the phrase "dog-eat-dog world" is debated, but it seems to be related to a Latin phrase "canis caninam non est", or "a dog doesn't eat a dog's flesh", meaning that even a dog has limits and will not destroy its own kind. Humans apparently have no such compunction and so we came to imagine living in a ruthlessly competitive world in which metaphorical dogs do devour each other.

But in the instance described above, the origin of the phrase doesn't seem to matter at all.

The man who said "doggy-dog world" used approximate sounds--essentially an idiomatic homonym--to convey the meaning that is usually assigned to the expression "dog-eat-dog world." His meaning is clear, but at the same time what he said is divorced from meaning in that it has no connection to the cultural associations that made the words "dog-eat-dog" connote ruthless competition. An idiom is a combination of words that have a figurative meaning based on their common usage. "Doggy-dog" means precisely nothing. But if enough people start saying it in lieu of "dog-eat-dog", perhaps its common usage will then transform it into the accepted idiomatic phrase. Would someone in the future researching the source of its meaning find that it has evolved--by sound alone and not by meaning--from the original idiom?

There is something infuriating about this all to me, a sense that idiots are mishandling something very precious, but I also find it fascinating. Being able to speak idiomatically is possibly the highest measure of language proficiency--I've known nonnative speakers who speak English so well I'd never suspect it isn't their first language, but they still had to ask me to explain the meaning of most idiomatic phrases. This is because idioms are derived from cultural sources that have nothing to do with the meanings of the individual words they contain; they reference historical and religious sources, literature, and custom. What happens, then, when the culturally-rich idioms become degraded into essentially meaningless sounds? Does it matter, since most people are unaware of the origins of idioms as it is? Since they are agreed-upon signifiers, will the degraded versions simply take the place of the meaningful idioms? Is this another sign that our culture as a whole is becoming degraded, dumbed-down and separated from meaningful discourse?

I hope not. The less-pessimistic, more playful side of me can almost enjoy this phenomenon. Language changes and grows, sometimes in unexpected ways. Maybe idiom is simply being scrappy, adapting in order to survive changes in the culture from which it derives. After all, it is a doggy-dog world out there.

Evolution of Language: Sarcastic Superlatives

When someone describes something as 'terrific' do you assume they mean it sarcastically?

I wonder if it would be possible to study the use of the word across the Internet and measure the ratio of how often it is used in earnest versus how often it is uttered with sarcasm. It might be difficult to quantify, given that sarcasm is usually indicated by tone of voice or some sort of physical gesture or facial expression, but certainly there are instances where even in writing the context is obvious. This seems like something Google should figure out how to do.

My guess is that the data would show that over the years--with the real shift beginning in, let's say, the mid 1980s after which it seems (to this child of the 80s) all the innocence began to leech out of the world--words like 'terrific', 'great', and 'wonderful' have become increasingly used in a sarcastic context rather than with the intent of expressing genuine delight.

More old-fashioned sounding words, like 'splendid' and 'grand', seem to be reserved for the highest pronouncements of mock-enjoyment.

We have a great many words in English to describe things with extreme positivity: Marvelous! Awesome! Sensational! Stupendous! First-rate! Fantastic! Excellent! Superb! I see them all splashed across the page in colorful, bubbly fonts surrounded by clipart of smiley pencils and party hats like the stickers my kindergarten teacher would put at the top of little stories I wrote when I was too young to get actual grades on things. But when I read these words, I rarely hear that exclamation point. Now I hear a deadpan period.

Are we just more negative, more complainy as a culture than before? Are we simply less easily impressed in a time when 'innovation' in the form of a monthly parade of new and mostly-useless gadgets vies for our esteem and attention? I don't know. When was the last time you felt moved to call something 'stupendous!' in earnest?

This reminds me of a Don DeLillo quote:

"He'd once told me that the art of getting ahead in New York was based on learning how to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way. The air was full of rage and complaint. People had no tolerance for your particular hardship unless you knew how to entertain them with it."

Maybe that explains what's going on. Language evolves; words come in and out of style and change meaning over time. Take 'sentimental', once meant in a more positive way as 'of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia', like in Sam Cooke's song, "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons". The modern connotation of the word seems to have a negative sense of being 'overemotional, self-indulgent, mawkish', like in the Radiohead song, "Let Down": "don't get sentimental / it always ends up drivel".

So our superlatives are evolving. No longer needed in the service of describing how great things are, people are creatively repurposing them for expressing just how superlatively shitty everything is.