Ezra Vasquez

The personal blog of an applied linguist, writer, & educator

Memes, Shibboleths, and Sociolects

NPR published an article on the 2023 “banished words” according to Lake Superior State University faculty on January 1st, 2023:

In their annual “Banished Words” list, the faculty of Lake Superior State University also suggest removing from your vocabulary overused phrases like “does that make sense?” and “it is what it is.” (Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Source: An inflection point for GOATs: Please quiet quit these ‘banished words’ moving forward

Author, Becky Sullivan, writes, “Frequently targeted are of-the-moment phrases.” Even the phrase “of-the-moment” implies trendiness.

This raises the question why certain phrases come into popular usage often to vanish as quickly as they appear. People adopt these terms to seem informed, sophisticated, or trendy. They want to associate themselves with the group who use this kind of language — in this case, probably the media.

Memes

One could argue that the media coin these terms to package large, complex ideas into bite-sized chunks of abstract language the public can absorb and repeat without much thought — summarizing complicated events into sound bites that anyone can repeat to evoke a slew of ideas, images, and associations. Even someone who lacks a talent for articulate speech can talk about complex phenomena, such as “gaslighting,” thanks to a meme.

The identification of memes is often attributed to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who hypothesized that some words and phrases could self-replicate in an analogous manner to genes (hence the rhyme) in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). The attribution remains controversial, however.

Sociolects

Still, the possibility remains that people repeat these phrases to signal other associations. When specific language identifies people by class, culture, or another identity, we call this language a sociolect.

The entry on Wikipedia defines “sociolect” as follows:

a sociolect is a form of language (non-standard dialect, restricted register) or a set of lexical items used by a socioeconomic class, profession, an age group, or other social group.

Sociolects involve both passive acquisition of particular communicative practices through association with a local community, as well as active learning and choice among speech or writing forms to demonstrate identification with particular groups.

Source: Sociolect – Wikipedia

Sociolects often come up when discussing the language of young people use language in creative ways to identify their subcultures.

The specific sociolect in this case would identify affluent, college-educated people between their mid-20s and -40s because these are the people who comprise much of the media.

Taking a look at Lake Superior State’s list, I would argue at least 6 of the entries derive from young people playing with language to signal socioeconomic affiliation:

  1. *GOAT
  2. *Inflection point 
  3. *Quiet quitting
  4. *Gaslighting
  5. *Moving forward
  6. Amazing
  7. (?)Does that make sense? 
  8. Irregardless
  9. Absolutely
  10. *It is what it is

“It is what it is” neglects to refer to much of anything. It does, however, end a conversation in a way that identifies the speaker as young, confident, and cavalier.

The asterisks (*) mark the entries I suspect represent sociolect signaling. “Does that make sense?” impresses me as belonging to a sociolect in certain usage. I’m surprised “You do you” didn’t make this list.

Shibboleths

The remaining entries on the LSSU list constitute perennial grammarian peeves. Mignon Fogerty, better known as Grammar Girl, wrote the following about “irregardless”:

People can be as passionate about language as they are about religion, and sometimes the two intersect. For example, linguists sometimes describe a word as a shibboleth. It means that the word tags you as a member of a certain group or class. For example, if you say irregardless, it tags you as someone who is poorly educated or doesn’t use proper language.

Shibboleth is a Hebrew word, and its linguistic meaning stems from the Biblical story of the Gileadites, who used the word to identify Ephraimites. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the “sh” sound, so shibboleth came out sounding wrong, making them instantly identifiable.

Fogarty, Mignon. The Grammar Devotional (Quick & Dirty Tips) (p. 7). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Note, however, that she wrote that in 2009. What kind of company does the faculty at Lake Superior State University keep that they heard “irregardless” enough to rank it on their top 10 list of words so hackneyed to warrant “banning”?

“Amazing” shares opprobrium with its kin “awesome” and for the same reasons (words people substitute for “cool” when they feel too old to use “cool” yet still have nothing to say). “Absolutely” provides the token -ly adverb of the list.

Too Persnickety?

If you’re guilty of overusing these words, or if all of this word-policing seems too pedantic, listen to linguist John McWhorter expose language mavens as hypocrites as he explains how reinforcement produces words like “irregardless.” He also vindicates your “amazing” retorts:

However, John neglects to include in his discussion what makes language appropriate or inappropriate in any language. While it is true that “irregardless” and other violations of conventional grammar points are not inherently or deductively “wrong,” in post-modern tirades, anti-“prescriptivists” ignore the essential factor that designates language acceptable or unacceptable — the expectations of speech communities. Languages do not conform to tenets of intuition, consistency, or logic. They conform to the behavior of speakers. Language is a cooperative act that requires a set of shared expectations among all participants.

So, It’s acceptable to refer to your parents as “Mom” and “Dad” on the phone with a sibling but not on the phone with your boss. Different circumstances — different speech communities — have different expectations.

Therefore, regardless of McWhorter’s gallant defense, you might incur condescension from your college-educated interlocutors if you let an “irregardless” slip out, so count yourself disabused.


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