The good news is that our language isn’t falling into the gutter. The bad news is that a handful of emotionally-charged words that express nothing but vague judgments are leading us toward verbal impotence and cognitive dullardry.
Let’s consider two words that are completely ubiquitous online: “EPIC” and “FAIL”. The new vernacular use of these words is something like this: “EPIC” means that something is very impressive, and “FAIL” expresses disdain at something.
These words are part of the standard-issue vocabulary of anyone under twenty. If something goes wrong, FAIL! If something’s really wrong, well, EPIC FAIL! But if these words are so commonly used across broad cross-sections of the population, it bears asking where they (in their current incarnations) came from.
EPIC got its start on 4chan. It was here that it emerged as an inside joke, an adjective that not only expressed a meaning, but that was funny in its own right because of its absurd and repeated use. FAIL’s origins are similar: it emerged in various forums under similar circumstances (its exact origin is debatable, but likely goes back to the terribly translated video game Blazing Star).
That’s right: the two most ubiquitous words on the internet were born in the nerdiest (I use the term lovingly) communities on the internet. But why is this significant?
The consequence of the widespread use of these memes is inextricably tied to the dissonance between their origins and the public understanding of their meanings. In other words: these memes meant one thing to a small community of geeks; they mean something different to the masses that use them now.
At this point, you might disagree. After all, if 4chan meant that something EPIC was hugely [impressive/comical/absurd], isn’t this what the population at large means now, too? Yes. But the key difference is that when these memes were removed from their forums, they lost the communal, in-joke nuances that they originally possessed. I don’t think that the first few people who started using EPIC and FAIL as jokes thought that they’d become integral components of our language.
And yet they have. They aren’t just used to describe Epic Beard Man or FAILBlog. I’ve talked to younger people who use these words in regular conversation. And do you know what the most disturbing aspect of their use is? They’ve become stand-alone, one-word sentences.
I mentioned in a previous article that the preponderance of “social” networks is leading to a degeneration of the emerging generation’s ability to engage in normal conversation. Epic and fail are playing a part in this erosion, too. How many times have you seen someone watch something funny and just say “epic” or “fail”?
What does it mean when we communicate in single words, with averted glances, not venturing anything beyond a joke, not knowing how to disagree?
In Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell painted a picture in which the Party continually deleted words from the English language because it knew that if someone lacked the words to express a dissenting thought, he would be unable to commit dissent. What do you think it means for the political engagement of the current generation if the whole spectrum between good and evil is displaced by a few silly words?
Luck and chance have made this the generation that must boldly face mortal challenges, political, social, and environmental, and all we can do is giggle and cough out truncated sentences as we look at cats with cheese on their heads.