Changing Language Signals Changing Values

Epic of the Mexican People by Diego Rivera

One of the basic elements of civilization is physical and verbal nonviolence.  When you are assaulting or insulting someone, you are not being civil.  Some cultures are more savage than others, but most do not recognize their own uncivilized behavior.

Americans have been tackling physical violence for decades and have refined it to the point where we include minorities (1960s), women (1970s), children (1980s), animals (1990s), and the environment (2000s) in a class usually deserving freedom from harassment and assault.

We are now considering verbal nonviolence, and it is a struggle.  Article after article appears in the newspaper either condemning someone as rude or making fun of someone who is trying to be sensitive, or politically correct. Some think the new phrase "differently abled," a refinement of disabled, which was an alternative to cripple, is an absurd example of politically correct labels.  Some of them are, but the real issue goes much deeper.  Societies change their language when they change their values.

The usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language tracks words leaving common usage (e.g., oaf) and words entering common usage (e.g., sexist).  They discern the definitions of words as they change usage (e.g., awesome), or as new words are created (e.g., byte, nano).  They also note that a changed value (e.g., lack of support of racism) also requires a changed language (e.g., African American or Native American).


We are Not Dulling the Language, We are Opening Up Our Minds

As people try to change language to reflect deeper understandings, it often happens that excesses appear.  The forces for sensitivity exaggerate to make a point, and the new words are clumsy.  The foes of change, particularly the intellectuals, like to view language as fixed because they have been right before and prefer to assume they are right now.  When the words you use are redefined as unacceptable then it forces a re-evaluation of just how thoughtful a person you have been.

Most of us would suggest both sides lighten up and keep their sense of humor but that is easier if you are not the one being hurt or demeaned.  The changes in language have a powerful way of changing perception (e.g., hearing or speech impaired for deaf and dumb, developmentally disabled for idiot and Wildlife Conservation Park for zoo).

We are not dulling the language, we are opening up our minds.  Those who bemoan the politically correct trend either do so because they are rarely victims or because they do not understand the need for our language to keep up with our hearts.

Following is a listing of words that have changed meaning over the last 10-20 years or so.  Write out the word's older meaning and then its current usage, and if applicable, the word that has replaced it.