Garwulf’s Corner #30: Language, Language

For a very long time, I have been fascinated by how language is actually used. It probably started back when I was in high school, and I noticed that some words just look and sound plain weird. It wasn’t too long before I started wondering where they came from. What can I say? I’m funny that way.

I didn’t take linguistics when I got to university; I was too busy at the time trying to be a military historian, and then a Beowulf scholar. But the fascination remained. Just how do these words have meaning?

Some phrases even mean the opposite of their words. “Having your cake and eating it too” is usually used when somebody is trying to overextend their grasp. But having a cake and eating it too is EASY. It’s eating the cake and having it too that is difficult. Still, I have yet to find a single person who actually says it in a way that makes sense.

Sometimes, it’s the same online.

A little while ago, somebody wrote me about homophobic comments on He had been wandering around the forums, and kept coming across people saying things like “You don’t even have an SOJ? You’re a gay newb,” or “F*cking gayass ring.”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard of shocking language online, or seen it myself. I remember wandering around a Counter-Strike forum and coming across people talking about how they’d been raped online.

What truly boggles my mind is that these comments are most likely not meant to be offensive as they are. Being called a “gay newb” is the same as being called an ignoramus, and has nothing to do with homosexuality. Being raped in Counter-Strike means that the opposing team wiped the floor with you, and has nothing to do with forced sex.

(At least, not unless some sicko has come up with the mother of all perversionary Counter-Strike mods…)

But rape is one of the most brutal violations that can happen to anybody. And homosexuality is not a profanity, or even in and of itself something bad (in many circles, the word “gay” has lost any derogatory meaning). And yet, when they show up in the online lingo, they are used in an offensive fashion to describe relatively non-offensive things.

In fact, the only time I have ever been directly insulted online was during a game of Warcraft. The person was losing badly, and called me a “hacker.”

It’s proof beyond doubt that the language is developing into something new before our eyes.

Every generation actually speaks a different language than their parents. The differences are sometimes almost so small as to be unnoticeable, but they are there. It’s how a language develops over time. For example, if you take somebody from the turn of the 20th century and try to talk to them about computers, you’ll have a very confused time traveler.

Context is an important part of it. For example, in the 16th century homosexuals were burnt at the stake, and the kindling used was slow-burning wet bundles of wood known as “faggots,” or “fag” for short. In England, which remained fairly liberal, the word “fag” came to refer to cigarettes, which are slow burning. In North America, where the settlers were very puritanical, the word came to refer, in a rather nasty way, to homosexuals. This is the sort of development that takes centuries to happen.

Online there has to be one of the most rapid developments of language I’ve ever seen. The words “rape” and “gay” are being used in a fashion that has little to do with their original meaning, while being called a “hacker” is one of the worst insults that can be handed out online. And God only knows how many EverQuest terms are out there, being used in contexts that have absolutely nothing to do with EverQuest.

I don’t necessarily agree with how language is used online. I knew somebody who was once nearly raped, and she most certainly did not take the word lightly. For that matter, using the word “gay” in a derogatory sense is a step backwards into the 1950s in most places.

The entire issue causes a bizarre problem. What is offensive, when the meanings of words are being shifted right before our eyes? Online, it’s now very difficult to say if offense was meant, despite words being used in an offensive way. Sadly, there’s not a lot anybody can do about it; language does not develop in any planned fashion, and while the occasional correction may help chastize somebody who uses the word “gay” in a derogatory sense, all we can do in the end is see what comes from the seed which has been sewn.

Next installment: A Matter of Habit, in which your glorious author examines computer game addiction.

Garwulf’s Corner was written from 2000-2002, by Robert Marks and published on Garwulf’s Corner covered gaming culture, fantasy literature, computers, and more. Robert Marks was also the author of Demonsbane, a work in the Diablo series of novels published by Blizzard Entertainment.

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