Words, words, words

2017’s big English language changes

By Ron Kozar

It was the first year of the Age of Trump. It was a year marked by a new militancy among blacks, pink-hatted feminists, and campus leftists. And it was the year the T in LGBT took the spotlight. As our culture begins clearing the wreckage from these and other seismic heavings, the linguistic trends become clear.

For one thing, the days of he and she are numbered. Replacing it is the new all-purpose, all-gender pronoun they. It used to be just a Facebook thing. (“It’s Dave’s birthday! Wish them a happy birthday!”) But now NPR and the New York Times have started doing it too. The change is prompted by a couple other words and phrases we began hearing about this year, such as the rebellion against the gender binary of male and female and the linguistic tyranny of the cisgendered, to make room for the intersex. In the same spirit, the London subway has dropped the soon-to-be-extinct “Ladies and gentlemen” as its public-address greeting, replacing it with a genderless “Hello, everyone.”

The rise of these new sensitivities coincides with the decline of old ones. Case in point, the F word. Any user of social media can attest to its increasing ubiquity. It hasn’t reached the free-tv airwaves yet, but it soon will. Canada, for one, has declared the F word fit for utterance at certain hours on the radio.

The rising coarseness that the F word epitomizes is surely related to our polarized politics. At the epicenter of that polarization is an orange-haired billionaire whose improvised responses to interview questions introduced us to the word salad. Trump’s musings on immigration have pushed Dreamers into our consciousness like never before. The reaction to Trump has given resist a new meaning, spawning dozens of neologisms and new usages. Some, in our country’s bluest, bitterest state, speak of Calexit, while their reddest counterparts muse about Texit. Those alarmed over the predicament of blacks in Trump’s America have taken to calling themselves the woke ones. And take a knee, which used to be what a football player did after catching a kickoff, assumed a whole new meaning in 2017.

The progressives’ bête noir, of course, is another phenomenon whose name reached the big time this year—white privilege. Happenings in places like Charlottesville acquainted the mainstream with two things most of us wish we’d never heard of, the alt-right and the antifa. And the rise of offense-taking on college campuses has stirred up lots of talk about snowflakes, trigger words, and safe spaces.

Feminists, too, have made their annual mark on the language. Thus, the femoir, or feminine memoir, has emerged as a literary form. Readers of such literature have been heard to bemoan body shaming, the mocking of actresses whose once-perfect bodies have begun showing the ravages of middle-age. Other feminist complaints appearing on the radar this year concern the manspreading one sees on buses and the mansplaining with which all us Cliff Clavins habitually afflict the women in our lives. (Mansplaining is not to be confused with whitesplaining, by which whites—usually men, and usually without being asked—purport to explain how racism is always just a figment of blacks’ imaginations.)

The year in crime has likewise brought new words to our attention.  It is now hard to think of Las Vegas without thinking of a bump-stock, a phrase that has joined assault rifle in the rhetoric of those seeking gun control. The phrase thoughts and prayers has begun sounding, in some precincts, like a righteous-sounding excuse for inaction. A steady diet of terrorist outrages has led to the bollardization of public places. Ransomware has held many a corporate computer-network hostage. Opioid, which intruded into public consciousness last year, is a word everyone knows how to pronounce this year, and groping, which somehow survived the Clinton era without a real definition, has lately taken on new media momentum, though its meaning is still unclear.

The internet has continued its forced march through our language. As cars and household appliances come to be networked right along with our computers and cell phones, one hears increasingly about the internet of things. Then there’s a new currency called the Bitcoin that, one imagines, you’ll hear more about in years to come. Math whizzes are working overtime to develop new macroscopes, algorithms to process the ever-larger bodies of data floating in the internet ether. And senders of text messages are dropping the first-person singular pronoun so routinely that locutions such as “Love it,” and “Can’t wait for summer” will one day soon, as in Spanish, be deemed grammatically-correct, complete declarative sentences.

Another year, another bumper-crop of words, phrases, and changes. Some made their debut this year, while others were already lurking in the margins of parlance before coming into their own in 2017. Some may stick. Others may fade back into obscurity. But all of them help us talk about things we never had to talk about before. Language changes because our society does.

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