The fluidity of language

Kids - they speak a different language. (file photo)
Monkey Business Images

Kids - they speak a different language. (file photo)

The other day I had some tests run. A gel-covered instrument was run over my body while black-and-white images of my internal organs were displayed on a screen. The wonders of science and technology.

A few days later, the nurse rang and gave me the results. The tests had come back "unremarkable", she said.

I was frankly a little disappointed. Unremarkable! I had a sudden picture of a 10-stone weakling having sand kicked in his face by a muscle-bound beach bod, attractive women draped over each arm. My body was average, ordinary, unexceptional.

Further into the conversation, prompted by my enquiries, it turned out that unremarkable meant the results were good. No sign of terminal disorders going about their silent and invasive, nefarious work. Unremarkable meant the opposite of what it usually meant in this case.

Words are funny things. And what we do with them is even stranger.

A few days later, I was talking with my 11-year-old granddaughter after I'd picked her up from Maeroa Intermediate. She used the word "savage" in a certain context. The tone of her voice when using the word alerted me to its special, aberrant use, as did the conversation that led up to it. She asked me, in a challenging manner, if I knew what the word meant. I immediately intuited that it was being used in a way to make something bad sound good.

It turned out that I was correct, although my granddaughter didn't appreciate my particular gloss on the matter.

"Savage", in certain circles, means to be naughty but cool. She is on the verge of being corrupted and my efforts at pointing out that savage really meant being uncivilised, barbaric and uncouth cut no ice with her. My "look it up in the dictionary" was met with a grump.

The following night on TV news, I discovered that "21 Savage" was the name of a black American rapper and, on examining his lyrics and video, I was confronted with the glamorisation of violence and a world of misogyny, where women are designated as "bitches".

In seventh grade, this particular musician was expelled from middle school for gun possession.

Ad Feedback

All of this helped explain why over the last few weeks my granddaughter has been cross-examining me about my behaviour when I was her age. Had I ever skipped class? Had I ever stolen anything? My answer, no, to every question prompted her to say, "You're such a goody-good." To be good means to be bad in certain circles.

It's obvious what was going on here. Boundaries were being tested, peer pressure brought to bear and the manipulation and "perversion" of language employed to water the process.

Visiting the bookshop with her the other day, she went straight to the toy section. She used to be an avid reader. On inquiring why she'd stopped reading, she responded by saying that only nerds read. She is moving in different circles now. Nerd. It's a word she's picked up that comes complete with all its inbuilt negative connotations. She is trying to be savage.

Here's another word possessed of elastic and connotative power: God. For some it means an omnipotent being located somewhere high above the clouds. But to others, like modern liberal theologians, the word has been given a complete makeover. It now means simply one's ideals or values.

Those values were brought to bear recently in Hamilton City Council chambers over the debate concerning Easter trading laws. Easter with a capital E. Now there's a word with enormous power in certain circles.

Members of the Christian community were arguing for no relaxation of the law. We don't want to impose our religious beliefs on others, one of their leaders began, but ...

Well, hang on a second, that's exactly what you are doing. All the secular types out there or people with other religious affiliations are being told what to do with their time by some who hold to a different religious persuasion.

Separation of church and state at this point has dissolved. What's going to happen when the Muslim population reaches critical mass here? Are we all going to be forced to honour the time of Ramadan?

Language is a rather fluid thing. The famous Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the understanding of language dynamics pivotal when it came to questions of clarity and truth. He compared the use of language to the playing of different games where different rules applied. When operating inside dissimilar communities of people, he pointed out, the rules don't easily translate from one group to another, and that is where confusion arises.

Unremarkable, savage, goody-good, nerd, Easter - all operate inside different cultural networks of people who create meaning precisely for their own groups, whether they be medical, rapper-musical or ecclesiastical.

I will thus be taking my unremarkable body and goody-good nerdy self off to the shops when they open in defiance of the Easter no-trading law. Does that make me savage?


 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback