The annual ‘banned’ words lists are a frustrating reminder of how much society dismisses youth culture

Phrases like ‘don’t @ me’ inform us that social media is still hugely relevant, while the word ‘woke’ entering general language show that being politically and socially aware is a priority for (most) younger people 

Eleanor Ross
Tuesday 01 January 2019 16:13 GMT
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The Kardashians are known for their fondness for evolving language: the idea that one word is inferior to another is pure snobbery
The Kardashians are known for their fondness for evolving language: the idea that one word is inferior to another is pure snobbery (Getty)

Ah, Christmas. Full of presents, overeating and hours spent trying to explain what it is you’re on about to everyone else in the room.

“Ghosting, grandma?” you say, with a slower and louder voice than usual. “It’s when someone you thought liked you just disappears. But your boss can also ghost you. And... you can ghost other people.”

“Oh right,” says your sweet Nana, reaching for another Quality Street. “But why did you say you were ‘yeet to ghost Gerald’?”

If it was up to Michigan’s Lake Superior University, there’d be no more word confusion during family holidays, because… there’d be no new words. The American university released its annual list of “words banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse and general uselessness”.

Words on the list include ghosting, yeet (which means to be excited about), thought leader, and any word that ends in -otus (of the United States), including Potus (president), Scotus (Supreme Court) and Flotus (first lady). Although its intentions are strong – why not keep the English language as uncluttered and as free from weird jargon as possible? – part of the beauty of English is how it’s constantly changing.

At the risk of sounding like a total word nerd, what I love most about the English language is how every word has a history. It’s like seeing the past threaded across the pages of our newspapers, books, and yes, even our phone screens.

Take Potus for example. Or, the President of the United States, as the good people at Lake Superior University would prefer. What looks like an acronym created to make it quicker to tweet about the latest crazy thing Trump’s done, actually started life in the 19th century as a telegram shorthand.

So while we’re griping about Potus and his wall obsession to friends on Twitter, it’s entirely possible that somebody was telegramming a relative about the Potus Lincoln freeing slaves 150 years ago.

Words can tell us so much about the world at any one time. When else would the colour gros de dos d’asne (or donkey grey) ever have been popular other than the Medieval period? And what about all the words that began to mutate as invader after invader took over British shores? (Or as Britain took over other people’s shores?) The evolution of language shows that our borders and worlds change over time just as much as our history books do.

If we’d kept the British language “pure” we’d never have jodhpurs as a term for riding clothes, or ennui to describe a state of listlessness. Nor would we have bungalows (which means a house built in Bengal style) or thug, meaning con-man in Urdu.

Language is a living, breathing, evolving thing, and it’s healthy that we add and subtract to it liberally. To look at how much words change over time, let’s just take the word “word”. What a simple, easy, nice little one-syllable, well, word. It comes from the Old English meaning to utter, the old Norse ord, and the Old Germanic wurda. It then became a noun, and if you listen on the streets you’ll hear young people saying “word” when they believe something’s indisputably true.

What I love most about new words is how different meanings attach themselves to words, and these meanings or words become synonymous with an entire generation or social movement. One word can tell us everything about how people are feeling.

“Shade”, which means passively aggressively insulting someone, tells us that drag culture has well and truly entered the mainstream, which in turn suggests that in 2018 people have opened their minds to different ways of being.

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Phrases like “don’t @ me” inform us that social media is still hugely relevant, while the word “woke” entering general language show that being politically and socially aware is a priority for (most) younger people. New words encapsulate generations. They capture how we’re acting, how we’re feeling, and are actually pretty good indicators for what we’ll be thinking over the year ahead too.

The idea that one word is somehow inferior to another is nothing more than snobbery. It’s the idea that the language you or I grew up with is somehow superior to the one the next generation is speaking. Fighting over language is a generational thing. “Speak properly” when you use slang. But in 10 years’ time, that slang word will probably be used by everyone.

Banning words, even if they’re overused or we don’t like them (gammon, anyone?) isn’t helpful. Words embody who we are, and what our culture looks like at any one time. And that is a beautiful thing.

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