The way language evolves has become a fascination for me since I started transcribing. I started thinking about this again when @Wordnerdsally on Twitter brought my attention to the latest rebuttal, by Académie Française, of an English word (hashtag), because it’s damaging French language purity. Will they actually stop the Frenchman (or woman, or child) on the street from using the word? I very much doubt it!
The fundamental problem with the whole idea of the Académie Française as a protector of the purity of the French language is that language is not, and never has been, ‘pure’. It changes over time because it’s living and it evolves; people speak it, younger generations love to twist and turn it and make it their own, waves of immigration bring in new words and change old ones, and language just keeps on changing.
A favourite evolution of a word for me, into something more negative than its original meaning, (pejoration, in linguistic terms, so I’m told) is ‘silly’. In Old English, ‘silly’ meant, of all things, blessed! If you were blessed, I suppose you were naturally thought to be innocent, so the word then started to mean innocent. By the time of Middle English (Chaucer’s era) that had evolved into ‘deserving compassion’. Not quite sure how the link worked there but I suppose if you were innocent of a crime and had been accused of it you would deserve compassion – maybe it evolved that way? Anyway, if you needed compassion, that must mean you were weak, right? Well no, probably not, but that seems to have been the thinking then, so ‘silly’ started to mean ‘weak’. ‘From there it was ‘a short step’, says linguist Professor John McWhorter, to it coming to mean ignorant, and from ignorant it evolved into ‘lacking in good sense’, which is one of its meanings today.
This is probably a very over-simplified description of the evolution of silly, not least because it doesn’t only mean ‘lacking in good sense’. It can also mean frivolous and it can be used to describe objects, not just people. However, it’s an indication of the complexity of language and the difficulties inherent in making sense of it! And making sense of language, as it is spoken, and translating that spoken language to something that makes sense on the page, is really what transcription is all about.
The evolution of silly took place over hundreds of years, but some words change much faster than that, especially in spoken English, rather than the more formal English usually found in writing. An obvious recent example is ‘wicked’. When I was a lass ‘wicked’ meant evil, and to some it still does, but most people would hesitate to use it that way because in the younger generations it has come to mean ‘cool’ which of course when I was a lass meant slightly chilly, and not hip (a joint of the body?), groovy (having lines engraved in it?) or just ‘in with the current style’ (from ‘Urban Dictionary‘).
So a good transcriptionist isn’t ‘only’ someone with a fantastic grasp of English spelling and grammar, but someone with their ‘finger on the pulse’ of current spoken English. Fortunately at Penguin Transcription our transcriptionists are not only experienced, but range considerably in age and background. When that the word ‘mardy’ came up in a transcript I was doing I had no idea the word even existed and kept trying to ‘hear’ another word that would make sense to me, but then a younger colleague listened to it and grasped it straight away. (For those who are just approaching ‘middle age’ like me, or older, it means grumpy, surly or miserable apparently!)