The New Slang

Language changes all the time, linguists like to say. What they tend to leave out is how ugly it can be. “Monetization on mobile queries right now is a significant fraction of desktop,” Larry Page of Google recently said at a press conference.

It’s interesting to me how many parts of this statement, which was presented as a summary quote on the front page of the business section in the New York Times two weeks ago, could not have been uttered 10 or 15 years ago. It’s also interesting that I had to read the sentence about a dozen times in order to merely approach what I take to be its basic meaning: Google is making much less money on mobile ads than it does on desktop ads.

I am a native English speaker; I read and write for a living; I should not have much trouble with a pull quote in a newspaper article. But what with that fancy subject-noun “monetization,” the unstated topic of ad revenue, the fractional business, and the aborted parallel between mobile and desktop, I may as well have been reading Finnish.

Yet we hesitate to acknowledge how much language is shaped and reshaped not only by changing times but by the spoken habits of specialists and others who are in the know.

 I just wrote a history of America’s greatest language controversy called The Story of Ain’t. It’s about the furor in 1961 over Webster’s Third, the so-called permissive dictionary, and at least three principles at the heart of this controversy may be relevant to Larry Page’s statement. They were quoted in a classic essay by Dwight Macdonald in which he mercilessly mocked Webster’s Third and compared it to the end of civilization.           

The three principles (taken from a set of five) are: Language changes constantly; spoken language is the language; and all usage is relative.

What say you? Do they seem true? 

  1. Skyler
    Fern: It’s funny – ironic, maybe? – that “ain’t” is itself obsolete. Who says “ain’t” anymore? · 2 hours ago

    About 2/3 of the country. 

  2. Mimi

    Brits use the word ain’t in speech often enough. It’s frequently used in working class circles, but isn’t limited to that demographic.  Lots of expressions use the word ain’t.  The word brings a certain liveliness to speech, and writing, too, I suppose.

    Fern: It’s funny – ironic, maybe? – that “ain’t” is itself obsolete. Who says “ain’t” anymore? · 2 hours ago

  3. Foxman

    Not only are new words added, but words change meaning.   My favorite example buxom.

    In the old English marriage ceremony the woman had to promise to be buxom.  This was not a promise to get surgical enhancements.  Buxom meant obedient (try getting that into a modern wedding; lots of luck).  Later it meant happy and then it evolved into its current usage.

    For those who wish to freeze the language, where exactly do we freeze it?  It’s been in flux since it began.

  4. Foxman

    It occurs to me that after liking a post, we can then unlike it.  This is the way Grampa talked when he was young.

  5. Mr. Dart

    We know what is meant when someone tells us, “I ain’t gonna!”

    Page’s Google-speak, like most jargon, is designed to confuse the uninitiated. 

    The rule should be: eschew obfuscation.

  6. Skyler

    I think one cause of  the growth of jargon is that we have such a huge population.  There are almost a half billion people in the US alone. A smaller population spread across Europe a few thousand years ago resulted in dozens of mutually unintelligible languages. 

    People in segments of industry will develop a jargon  of their own. As these segments grow and remain isolated they will tend to become more and more unintelligible to outsiders. 

  7. Jimmy Carter

    Language changes constantly; spoken language is the language; and all usage is relative.

    Some say Our Constitution is living and breathing. I say it ain’t.

  8. Hope

    I’m a professional linguist — they’ll kick me out of the club if I don’t say I agree! But even outside of that, while I am more prescriptivist than many, I have to say these three principles are true. Languages, like people, only stop changing when they’re dead. Language at its most fundamental core is a grammatical system in the minds of the speakers who use it, and spoken language, with all of its errors and ums and ahs, most closely reflects the real-time processing going on in the brain of the speaker. But the written language is also important, for those languages that have it (and a largely literate speaker population).    

    I’m not sure exactly you mean by the last principle. I am by no means a relativist, but with regard to language, the particular context of any given speech act will influence its interpretation, social connotations, etc., so in that sense all usage is relative. 

    Note: saying that all languages change is not the same thing as saying that the meaning of a written document changes. I am firmly against the living Constitution view, and the modern deconstructivist approach to literature etc.  

  9. Maggie Leber

    Interestingly, I took the meaning of the quote to be that mobile ad revenue is not so much smaller than ads displayed on the desktop as one might have thought in the past 

    But then I come from the context the quote was made in.

  10. Pilli

    This reminds me of “Blade Runner”.  The language of the future was “SpanGlish”.

    Language has always been regional.  Jeff Foxworthy started his career by “translating” country language to normal language.  “Momanems” becomes “your mother and her peers”.  Soda pop = soda = pop = a coke (lowercase c).

    My understanding was that “ain’t” was a part of the language for a long time just not in the dictionary.

    So the question becomes, is the dictionary the final say on what is acceptable speech or just what is acceptable for print?  And how often does it need to be updated?

  11. Brian Skinn
    Maggie Leber: Interestingly, I took the meaning of the quote to be that mobile ad revenue is not so much smaller than ads displayed on the desktop as one might have thought in the past 

    But then I come from the context the quote was made in. · 3 minutes ago

    Agreed, after a few re-reads for complete parsing, I read Page’s statement as indicating mobile monies as comparable to, but somewhat less than, desktop monies.  Additionally, I read an implication that mobile monies are on the increase, and he sees this as a good thing.

    In technical fields jargon is often immensely helpful within a given (sub-)discipline, as it permits a single term to encapsulate an enormous body of knowledge that is typically safe to assume to be mutually known.  Outside of that discipline, though, that same jargon tends to be confusing at best, or obfuscatory at worst.

    David, I believe all three of the principles you cite are true.  Linguists have been searching for context-free language grammars for a while now; I believe that search to be futile. I suspect a universal context-free grammar would necessarily be infinitely complex; problematic for finite brains.

  12. doc molloy

    Ain’t misbehavin’.. It Ain’t Necessarily So.. Ain’t No Sunshine.. Ain’t That A Kick In The Head?.. It Ain’t Me, Babe.. I Ain’t Got Nobody I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).. Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You.. It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).. Ain’t, ain’t been half bad for the lyricist down the years.. 

  13. David Skinner
    C

    Maggie, I wonder if you’re right. There is the qualifier “significant,” and the additional detail of “right now,” but the article and the defensive manner in which the earnings report were released suggested to me the “fraction” was small. Here is the online version of the article in which the quote is reintegrated into the main text.

  14. KC Mulville

    As a devoted reader of Wittgenstein, I applaud all three principles.

  15. Brian Skinn
    David Skinner, Guest Contributor: Maggie, I wonder if you’re right. There is the qualifier “significant,” and the additional detail of “right now,” but the article and the defensive manner in which the earnings report were released suggested to me the “fraction” was small. Here is the online version of the article in which the quote is reintegrated into the main text. · 12 hours ago

    Yeah, context definitely gives the line a more negative, defensive affect.  Point in favor of context mattering!

  16. Southern Pessimist

    I somestimes e-mail  Jay  Nordlinger comments on his articles at  NRO and on a discussion of how language usage means everything, he reprinted my quip that recently I got a flyer for a coupon for a liquid weight loss product that was made out of an all natural appetite suppresant. I looked at the flyer and tried to figure out what an all natural appetite suppresant was, but couldn’t figure it out. It finally dawned on me that the perfect all-natural appetite depressant was FOOD. So I decided the company could keep their carrot juice cocktail and I would stick to my cheeseburger.

  17. David Skinner
    C

    The principles strike me as true but inadequate to the task of explaining what circumstances warrant which kinds of language. They are argumentative and without subtlety.  They were devised by linguists and written into  English Language Arts, which was published by the National Council of Teachers of English in 1952. They became a part of the Webster’s Third controversy when Philip Gove quoted them in a discussion of how modern linguistics had affected the making of dictionaries. This gave fodder to critics who argued that Webster’s Third was the ugly stepchild of structural linguistics.

  18. Brian Skinn
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: These principles get at the heart of one of the Hemingway marriage’s longest-running fights. Mark  argues that words and grammar rules change all the time and that to fight it is madness. I, madly, fight to retain definitions and rules.

    The problem for me is that language isn’t just the means by which we communicate with our contemporaries but also the way our ancestors communicate with us and we with our descendants. Too much change risks a serious loss in value. And there’s also the problem with how so many of the changes are for the worse — toward coarsening and lazy thinking.

    Also, get off my lawn. · 11 hours ago

    Mollie, I hear you.  At the same time, I think change in language is inevitable.

    It seems like there’s in general a healthy tension between the “Grammar, schmammar!” and the “Gah! That should be a semicolon!” crowds.  The former keep the language alive and dynamic; the latter make sure there’s at least some consistency in the linguistic structures and keep us able to read the authentic semantics in old texts.

  19. outstripp

    A few years ago I saw a study where a computer scientist tried to measure the entropy in Elizabethan English and modern English as a way of determining whether the language was deteriorating. The answer: no.

  20. John H.

    I think language is “shaped and re-shaped” only by people whose mystifying prestige causes other people to reread their emissions a dozen times over. Since I too am a native English-speaker, I can’t be bothered.  Native English-writers work for me, not the other way around! But when I read Portuguese, I feel obliged, because I can’t be quite sure I’m reading something all native speakers know and I still don’t, or it’s something just plain bad. 

    This does remind me of a book about Turkish I read a while ago, one whose point I didn’t understand. The amazon reviews do help a bit. But I am still unconvinced that there are language gulfs between Turkish generations. Turks don’t listen to and obey language reformers. They listen to and obey their mothers.

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