One of my favourite concepts in linguistics is that of the “colloquial treadmill”. The idea is that words, like many other real and abstract things, evolve over time based on specific driving factors. In the case of racial slurs you can see the evolution from nigros to coloured people to people of colour to Blacks to Black People and finally to African Canadians or African Americans if you’re in the United States, or just people if you’re in Africa I suppose. This movement is driven by the use of common terms as slurs of by the desire of minorities to create their own identities. A similarly long list of words can be found to describe almost any oppressed group in history.
A parallel treadmill occurs in our everyday language pushed along by different drivers. You know how certain words ring of certain decades? Words like swell and neato sound like the 50s while groovy and tubular ring clearly of the 60s? There is one group of words that seems to move faster than any other and that is words to replace good. Here are a few that come to mind:
Good, grand, swell, nice, awesome, terrific, incredible, unbelievable, amazing, sweet, sick, phat, steeped, ill, bad, ballin’, bangin’, astronomical, fantastic, dope, wonderful, spectacular, groovy, tubular, cool, hip, legit, and so on, and so on. . .
Needless to say, there are a lot of ways to say good. For some reason, different generations and subcultures tend to distinguish themselves by annexing perfectly good words and assigning them a new meaning: roughly the same meaning as good.
But I propose that this is a mistake, that something good is lost when we absorb many words to do the job of one. We lose the ability to seriously use those words in their original meaning. Awesome no longer describes an object or scene that inspires awe in us. Fantastic no longer describes the subjects of fantasy. Sick, when used to mean good, is so stupid that it creates only confusion between people of different generations.
We’d all be in a better position to describe our feelings if we made careful use of all of these words even if that means using the big ones sparingly. All you have to do is think about what the word really means before you say it. Was that cup of tea really wonderful? Did it fill you with wonder? Are those boots really awesome or are they just beautifully designed? If someone wants to tell you an incredible story, don’t believe a word of it! Getting the hang of it?
We can reclaim our language one adjective at a time! I think it would be. . . beneficial to our society in the long term.
Can you think of any words that people use to say good yet have a perfectly obvious and useful meaning of their own?