Newspeak and neologisms: the evolution of language
There are more than one million distinct words in the English language, and thanks to the pace of technology and social media, this is growing by the day. Words have taken on new meanings, new generations have utilised language as a form of activism and a new kind of taboo has emerged. But what does the language of the digital age say about today’s society?
In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell created a new language for the fictional depiction of Oceania dubbed “Newspeak”. The purpose of this new language was to remove the possibility of rebellion by restricting language and altering meanings: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength,” writes Orwell. All political commentary aside, 1984 paints the perfect picture of just how easy it is to manipulate, change and redefine language to take on a whole new meaning.
But there’s a flip side to the notion of Newspeak. It shows just how much new words and meanings are defined by the culture, society and technology of the times. So where exactly do new words come from in the 21st century?
Unlike the government-dictated lexicon of 1984, most of the new language we use can be credited to young people, especially women (although we can credit the popularisation of certain phrases such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” to a similarly frightening real-life government figure as the one depicted in 1984 …). “For decades, linguists have agreed that young, urban females tend to be our linguistic innovators,” writes linguist and writer Amanda Montell in her book Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language.
Dr Amanda Laugesen, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANU) and chief editor of The Australian National Dictionary, says, “Language always surprises you in terms of what trends it takes and where it goes.”
“Traditionally, it was young people using the kind of language that their parents didn’t use and didn’t understand, and that was a way of excluding their parents from their culture and to mark the older generation as being ‘uncool’,” Laugesen explains. And it seems that younger generations are often at the helm of creativity when it comes to slang, crafting new words or completely redefining common ones.
Let’s take the word “scrub” for example. One form of the word means to clean, and the other has been used as slang for “an insignificant or contemptible person” since the 16th century. We can perhaps credit TLC’s iconic tune No Scrubs for the reintroduction of the word into mainstream culture. There are plenty more catchphrases from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s — “wicked”, “that’s sick” and “as if” (an iconic line from the 1995 film Clueless) — that were essentially redefined and reclaimed by the pop culture of the era. Nowadays, we can credit social media for popularising and creating new words.
“The words we choose to use can reveal much about the way we think and the society that we live in,” Laugesen writes in her book Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language. So what does the modern Australian lexicon reveal about our society?
The modern lexicon
The Global Language Monitor (GLM) estimates that a new word is created every 98 minutes. In 2020, Dictionary.com recorded 15,000 updates to existing entries and added 650 new words, including ecoanxiety, GOAT (greatest of all time) and social distance.
“One of the most interesting things about social media language is the level of creativity,” Laugesen says. Perhaps this explains why so many of the new words we use every day are portmanteaus — hybrid words that blend the sounds and meaning of two others, such as podcast (iPod and broadcast), cronut (croissant and doughnut), labradoodle (Labrador and poodle) and flexitarian (flexible and vegetarian).
Social media has also changed the process of how a word gets used and when it becomes an “official” dictionary-recognised word. In the pre-internet world, a word would have to be widely used in the vocabulary for around 10 years before it was officially defined in print. Online dictionaries, however, have allowed for more immediate additions of words that may be trending or popular in the moment but aren’t guaranteed to stick around.
The rise of social media has sped up this process even more and made way for new words, meanings and phrases created by users. “Through social media, words that otherwise might be quite ephemeral, disappear very quickly or be quite localised slang gain a lot more prominence and can spread a lot further,” explains Laugesen.
Social media is certainly responsible for the creation of plenty of buzzwords (including meme, hashtag and selfie), but perhaps its most prominent role in developing language is simply amplifying slang used by small groups, giving millions of people access to new words and meanings.
But the fast pace of digital media means that popular slang changes faster than ever. Much like fashion trends, by the time you’ve got a solid understanding of how to use a certain word, it will already be obsolete. Perhaps the more popular and widespread an originally niche word becomes, the less appealing it becomes to the creators.
We saw this most recently with the word “cheugy”, used to describe a person or thing that is the opposite of trendy — it’s not always used negatively, but to convey a certain type of aesthetic. This word was created in 2013 by then high schooler Gabi Rasson and soon spread among her school and throughout her college sorority over the years but remained relatively niche until it went viral via a TikTok post in March 2020. Cheugy caused a buzz on social media, and the new word was written about in almost every publication. And so using the word cheugy became cheugy and the word died out as quickly as it caught on.
Language trends in Australia
When you think of Australian language, what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s phrases like “bloody oath!” or the way we abbreviate almost any word we can — barbecue to barbie, vegetarian to vego, afternoon to arvo and good day to g’day. These diminutives add a friendly, informal vibe to conversations — some even date back to the 1800s. Abbreviations aside, there is another aspect of our Australian English that stands out.
“We are certainly renowned for our creativity with words and idioms, and this extends into the realm of the offensive,” Laugesen writes in Rooted. The four-letter words that were once incredibly offensive are now used fondly in friendly banter (context- and setting-dependent, of course) and swearing has become synonymous with Australian language.
But in the past decade, Indigenous language has begun to shape the 21st-century Australian lexicon. “One thing that we’ve been tracking a lot in our work is the words around Indigenous culture and First Nations culture,” Laugesen explains. “There’s been a lot of words that are coming into Australian English that reflect our understanding, for white Australians, of Indigenous cultural traditions, Indigenous traditional knowledge and even the adoption of Indigenous words for flora and fauna. Recently, there’s also been some discussion about using Indigenous language names for the seasons, which would then reflect our understanding of weather more from a First Nations’ perspective than from a Western knowledge perspective.”
And although Indigenous dialect is beginning to shape more of Australian English, First Nations people have been reshaping English among themselves for decades. Around 80 per cent of the Indigenous population speak Australian Aboriginal English (AAE), which has its own structure and phonetic variety. Kinship terms like “Auntie” and “Uncle” are used not just for blood relatives but to convey respect to senior people; “deadly” is used to champion someone who is doing good things; and “lubly”, a phonetic play on “lovely”, is used as a term of endearment, gratitude or attraction.
Newspeak – Linguistic activism and a new taboo
The English language is generally known as the hardest language to learn. Much of it depends on how a word or sentence is communicated, rather than what is being communicated. “We all do different things with our language, we all speak in different ways and have different accents,” says Laugesen.
“Bad language can liberate and challenge, but it can also oppress and injure,” Laugesen writes in Rooted. Fortunately, many oppressed groups and individuals have learned to utilise the complexities of the English language to reclaim, redefine and revolt.
This is especially evident among the queer community, BIPOC community and women. Laugesen details what she calls “feminist linguistic activism” through her research and writing, noting the ongoing debates and revival of terms that originated decades ago. Language has long been used as a tool to oppress and belittle women and minority groups, but Laugesen notes that women learned quickly how to subvert language as a means of resistance.
The ’70s and ’80s saw the birth of modern feminism, which, of course, led to the questioning of sexist overtones in language. History became “herstory”, Miss and Mrs became “Ms” (because our value does not lie in whether we are married or not), and a lot of gendered language was challenged as a political statement to move away from patriarchal language. Recent years have also seen the popularisation of alternate spelling for “women”, including womxn, womban, womyn or wimmin — all of which have slightly different meanings to different groups but are used to be inclusive, diverse and removed from the patriarchy.
This premise has been modernised in Wordslut, where Montell notes the way that language is constantly evolving as a means to both oppress and liberate. One of her most interesting arguments is the use of filler words predominately used by women, such as “like” and “you know”. Women, especially young women, are often ridiculed or written off as ditsy for speaking this way, but Montell argues that “Young women use the linguistic features that they do, not as mindless affectations, but as power tools for establishing and strengthening relationships. Vocal fry, uptalk and even ‘like’, are in fact not signs of ditziness, but instead all have a unique history and special social utility.”
Laugesen agrees, noting that these kinds of prejudices are often imposed upon groups or individuals to disempower them: “That’s something that we’ve seen for a very long time,” she explains. “It just changes from generation to generation as to what is used to criticise and to stigmatise particular groups.”
We know that language and slang is used by many to connect and bond. Speaking in this way is how women have learned to connect, challenge and thrive.
This sentiment is echoed in journalist Ann Friedman’s 2015 essay for The Cut: “Language is not always about making an argument or conveying information in the cleanest, simplest way possible. It’s often about building relationships. It’s about making yourself understood and trying to understand someone else.”
When it comes to reclaiming words, however, Laugesen explains that this is debated among linguists and can be “quite fraught as you really want to be thinking about other ways in which you’re trying to fight discrimination and make political, social or cultural claims as a group.”
We’ve seen this kind of reappropriation recently among minority groups, with BIPOC reclaiming racial slurs and the queer community owning homophobic language — and often these words are used as a term of affection, endearment or recognition among the respective communities. This essentially removes the offensive power from the term, offering an alternative discourse that allows groups that were once oppressed to reclaim power and identity. Reclaiming a slur or offensive term that has been typically used to oppress or offend feels powerful for many, but it does not allow for others outside the group to use the word.
Given our the incredibly colloquial slang and casual use of swear words, what does “taboo” language look like in modern society? “What’s interesting about the trends of the moment in terms of thinking what’s taboo language is that it’s really shifted now to discriminatory language,” Laugesen muses. “There’s a lot more awareness and a lot more effort being made to try and eliminate discriminatory language.”
This encompasses race, gender, ability, sexuality and many more factors that have historically been used against individuals within these groups. “I think that’s a reflection of the kinds of preoccupations that we have and we’ve become a lot more aware of how language can be discriminatory and how it can stigmatise,” she says.
While we are not heading down the same dystopic path as the world of 1984, we still have a way to go and a lot to learn about the language we use, especially when it comes to cultural sensitivity. The words we speak and how we use them can and do have a lasting effect. It’s up to us to ensure this shift is for the better.
The Newspeak of 2021 can be hard to keep up with.
Here are a few of our favourite words and what they mean in the digital age.
Blackfishing: When someone who is not of Black culture alters their image (typically through tanning, image filters or styling) or behaviour in order to appear as a person of colour.
Catfish: To deceive or manipulate by assuming a false identity or personality online; can be used as a verb or a noun.
CEO of …: A title given to a person who has mastered their field, typically seen in captions or the comments section on social media; for example, “CEO of memes”.
Deplatform: To ban a person or group from sharing their views on a public platform, usually by removing their social media accounts.
Doomscrolling: The act of excessively scrolling through sad, disheartening or depressing news on social media or news sites; falling into a rabbit hole of negative news, especially during the pandemic.
Fitspiration: A portmanteau of “fit” and “inspiration”; a very fit, healthy person (especially an influencer) who acts as motivation to improve one’s own fitness.
Flex: To show off or gloat; can be used as a verb or a noun.
Glow up: A dramatic transformation resulting in someone becoming more mature, confident or attractive.
Mansplain: A portmanteau of “man” and “explain”; the act of a man explaining something to someone, usually a woman, in a condescending or patronising way.
Proffee: A drink made by combining iced coffee with protein powder.
Queerbaiting: A strategy commonly used by the entertainment industry (as well as celebrities and influencers) to appeal to an LGBTQ+ audience without actually following through or being progressive.
Shade: Used in reference to sly or subtle criticisms towards someone or something, as in “to throw shade”.
Side-eye: A sidelong glance, usually used as an act of suspicion, disapproval or even curiosity.
Sleepcast: A new form of audio content pioneered by Headspace combining voice and ambient sound to encourage a restful sleep.
Stan: Originally a portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan”, but now has a mellower meaning; a “stan” means a dedicated fan, to “stan” means to be in support of something.
Tea: Slang that originated in black drag culture meaning gossip or juicy news, as in to “spill the tea”.
Zillennial: a “Microgeneration” of people born between 1993 and 1998 who are too young to relate to millennials but too old to relate to Gen Z.