Changing Connotations

Tonight a friend and I were having an interesting conversation during which she called herself a geek and then we got on the subject of geek and nerd and whether they meant the same thing (she said no, I said yes). She claimed that a geek was more socially acceptable and society accepted what they were doing, whereas nerdiness was . . . well, nerdiness. I can kind of see where she’s coming from–the term applied to computer engineers is generally computer GEEK, for instance. But I still thought they meant the same thing.

Anyway, then I decided to look up the etymologies of the words to see if they did, in fact, mean the same thing, because that’s how much of a GEEK I am. Unfortunately they took down the online dictionary I was using, etc. but I eventually found what I needed.

“Geek” comes from the Scotch geck, meaning “fool,” and the Dutch gek, meaning “mad, silly.” “Nerd” probably comes from the 1940s slang “nert,” meaning a stupid or crazy person,” which probably comes from “nut.” So basically, they both mean the same thing.

The thing that struck me as interesting about these etymologies, though, is that they both imply a lack of intelligence and a lack of discipline–they’re just crazy people. Nowadays, while the words don’t necessarily mean a lack of craziness, both geek and nerd generally mean the person is intelligent–to the point they may socially inept in some way, even.

Moral of the Story: I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: words change over time, not just in their denotations but in their connotations. Sometimes, words will come out on the other end of time meaning the complete opposite of what they were originally intended to mean. Do new words, then, have to be formed to fill the holes these words were originally intended to fill?


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Filed under English, Etymology, Linguistics


Back on the subject of language being different depending on where you’re from! Today I was talking to a friend and we got on the subject of the advantages of being a guy and how dress shirts don’t quite hang right on girls mostly (and by “dress shirts” I mean shirts that button along the front).

Anyway, she kept calling them “button ups,” which was confusing me at first–I’ve heard of button UPs as referring to pants that have a button (or multiple buttons) as opposed to snaps (yes, I know most people don’t wear pants with snaps past the age of ten). As for the shirts, I would call them button DOWNs. Once we cleared this up, I realised it would be excellent fodder for the blog (which I’ve suddenly become horrible about updating).

Moral of the Story: Pay attention to the speech of the area you’re in. Otherwise, you might end up buying a pair of pants when you wanted a shirt or vice versa.

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Another Weird Phrase

Today’s phrase of the day that doesn’t quite make sense in a totally literal: “I’m (doing) all right.”

Now wait, you might say, this makes perfect sense–everything is going right for me. Okay, but that’s not precisely what this phrase is saying. The way I see it, this phrase means either:

a) I’m doing everything right–i.e., I’m not doing anything wrong. Which I guess makes for a pretty good mood, but I don’t think this is what we’re going for here.

b) I’m all right–i.e., I’m not wrong. Basically, I’m perfect, which also would probably make for a pretty good mood but which also isn’t a very realistic way to approach life. If you have to be perfect to be in a good mood, you’re going to lead a pretty sorry existence.

c) I’m doing all right–in the sense that I’m making everything better in the world. This is probably not feasible and would probably make for better moods for others than for you, yourself.

Moral of the Story: Language is ridiculous. Then again, dialects are basically a popularising of so-called incorrect phrases and terminologies, so I guess it comes down again to whether we want to prescribe a grammar or not.

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Unnecessary Words

I do a lot of editing stuff just for fun (-ahem-), and one of the things that I notice a lot and which really, really bothers me is redundancies. Not to sound bitchy, folks, but here’s a quick lesson: if you look at a sentence and it has two words that mean basically the same thing, chances are you only need one of those words. For example:

“I am totally and completely in love with you.” If you’re totally in love with someone, you’re obviously completely in love with them. If you’re completely in love with someone, you’re obviously totally in love with them. (Not to mention that this sentence is highly cliché and should probably be avoided at all turns.)

“She’s also very good at cooking as well.” “Also” and “as well” mean the same thing; you don’t need both of them.

“Thank you for coming; I’m so glad you could make it.” If you’re thanking them for coming, you’re obviously glad they could make it (or at least you’re going to pretend you’re glad they could make it).

Moral of the Story: I think my main problem with redundancies is that they break up the flow of the sentences. Unless you want to write teenage chick literature, which genre apparently has no standards for what is considered good writing, pay attention to what you’re saying and don’t say the same thing twice.

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P.C. Language

I’ve always thought that the notion of so-called politically-correct language is ridiculous. I mean, seriously? What makes one word worse than another word? What makes one combination of letters less offensive than another combination of letters (or more offensive, for that matter). Maybe it’s just because I learned to speak in central Jersey and have the mouth of a sailor on me some days, but I’ve still always wondered who decided which words are “correct” and which words are “incorrect.”

I found an interesting section in my English textbook last semester that talked about this concept. The textbook, if anyone cares–and which I highly, highly recommend to those even remotely interested in linguistics–is An Introduction to Language by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams (I’m using the 8th edition).

Anyway, the section is a subset of chapter ten and is titled “Taboo or Not Taboo?” (p442). Part of this section points out that a lot of the words that we have that are considered taboo are the Anglo-Saxon words (e.g. cunt, cock, tits, and shit); the Latinate words are the acceptable ones (e.g. vagina, penis, mammary gland, and feces). It dates this back to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and chalks it up to the idea that the upper class was superior and that their speech should be mimicked. Really, these words were meant to have the exact same connotations, however.

Moral of the Story: I’m sure most people already knew things like conquests could change languages, adding words and such. I, for one, though, never really connected that wars might also change what words are considered correct. Fascinating. (I love this book so much . . . )

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Filed under English, Linguistics

Puzzle Pieces

I’m back, after dropping off the face of the earth for . . . far too long. Spring break and all, and I took a break from everything. Anyway, I didn’t stop thinking and now I’m back with more word-things.

Today’s post has to do, again, with German. One of the things I love about German are the compound words. You think this happens a lot in English? You should try learning German. Sometimes, I hate the compound words–like when I’m reading aloud in German in class and come to a word that’s ten thousand letters long. But I think they really add something to the language.

One of the ones I came across recently was the adjective meistdiskutiert-, used in a sentence like, Es war das meistdiskutierte Buch. Meist means “most;” diskutiert means “discussed.” (The sentence means, it was the most-discussed book.) It kind of makes sense to have this as one modifier, right?

And then there’s my favourite compound word in German–Stinktier. This literally means “stinky animal”; it’s a skunk.

Moral of the Story: Language can often be very descriptive. Wonder why English keep the compound words so much . . .

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Not A Full Human

This is something that’s always sort of bothered me in English, and I figured I’d share it with everyone on here.

Why is it that when someone insults someone, “You idiot” doesn’t mean the same things as “You complete idiot”? Either way, you’re insulting the person’s intelligence. And aren’t people always “complete”? Are we insulting half the person if we just call them an idiot? I don’t think so. Is “idiot” only supposed to pertain to part of the person’s knowledge? Not usually. So it’s just a random adjective thrown in there? Apparently so.

Moral of the Story: Languages are probably difficult to learn purely because they have so many things in them that make absolutely no sense.

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