Translating English into English

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, January 27, 2018

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The older I get, the more the younger generations seem like alien creatures.

I’m told this is a normal part of growing older and I can appreciate that, but I speak English and as far as I know, so do they. So why can’t I understand what they are saying? It’s happening more and more that people are saying things that make no sense to me. Why, as I get older, am I finding myself translating English into English?

Joy Carrico

Because language changes along with everything else.

This point has been driven home to me lately because I’ve been reading old copies of the Messenger for our Wise As It Was page. Wise County’s approach to the English language was different 100 years ago.

Little things are different. Here is a typical entry in a 1918 classified ad: “TO TRADE for residence in Decatur – 35 acre farm 3 miles of Decatur. See T. L. Ball, Decatur.”

“3 miles of Decatur.” Today we would say three miles from Decatur. Three miles of Decatur sounds really odd, until I put a direction in front of it, then it falls right into my speech patterns: three miles north of Decatur.

But 100 years ago, even if they didn’t put in a direction, they still said “of.” Now we say “from.”

Big things are different, too. Here’s a sentence from Jan. 11, 1918: “Our congressman Marvin Jones has gummed the cards with Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin.”

I have no idea what this means. Reading the entire paragraph didn’t clue me in. I Googled it (another recent addition to English) and found one reference. In “A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies’ Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology, Volume 1,” written in 1897, it states that: “A man writes cards during examination to ‘feeze the profs;’ said cards are ‘gumming cards,’ and he flops the examination if he gets a good mark by the means.”

Isn’t that helpful?

I guess we will live in mystery about what, exactly, Congressman Marvin Jones did with or to Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin. That same book also defines “to gum” as to deceive or trick. That might be on the right track, but I couldn’t really go farther. Google kept trying to tell me all about baseball cards sold in packages of gum.

When I think about it, language has always been changing.

In 1611, the King James Bible was written to provide an authorized English translation of the Bible. It was written to be understood by English speakers of the time. The Message Bible, which was written to be a modern-day translation of the Bible, was completed in 2002. It, too, was written to be understood by English speakers of the time. Here is Luke 14:11 in both versions:

King James Version: “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

The Message: “What I’m saying is, if you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

That’s very different.

Even in my own lifetime language has changed dramatically. There are many words we use, or use in vastly different ways, than when I was young.

Here are a list of sentences that I would likely hear today as part of normal conversation that would have made zero sense to me in the past:

  • I retweeted that.
  • It’s in the cloud.
  • I unfriended him because I didn’t like what he wrote on my wall.
  • That video went viral.
  • You’re a liberal snowflake.
  • That guy’s a real creeper.
  • I have to give you props for that.
  • You’re a tool.
  • LOL, BRB, TTYL or any number of acronym-isms
  • I saw a flash mob.
  • I took a selfie.
  • He went postal.
  • Did you see that meme?
  • #metoo
  • My bad.

I remember the first time I heard someone use the phrase “my bad.” I was on the phone with a customer service person, and he said, “Oh sorry, my bad.” I thought, “Are you stupid? What is ‘my bad?'”

I admit I have never warmed to this phrase. But it has been around longer than some of my coworkers have been alive, so I am forced to admit that it is part of our language now. I don’t personally say it, but I no longer cringe when others do (although the Fella is discouraged from its use).

One particular trend I’m noticing is turning nouns into verbs. Even the act of turning a noun into a verb is called “verbing.”

“Siloing” is the act of surrounding yourself with people that agree with you and filtering out those that don’t. I know that behavior as confirmation bias. Apparently, we have coined the phrase “siloing” to describe it.

Instead of acting like adults, we are “adulting.”

I heard on a podcast (newish word) that kids are using “versus” as a verb. Rather than “It was us versus them,” they would say, “We versed them.”

A friend of mine who works with adolescents told me that one of his clients said, “You sarcasted me!”

I have to say that I really like this one. If any noun deserves to be turned into a verb, it is the word “sarcasm.”

The changes aren’t going to stop, so I guess my choices are to continue to try to learn what the new words and phrases and the new uses of old words are, or I can accept bafflement as a constant state.

I do take comfort in knowing that all those kids who look at me like I’m slightly stupid will one day be in my shoes wondering when they stopped understanding English.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. She tries to be woke for FOMO, and so that her work squad won’t facepalm.

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