Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Can a single person intentionally change language?



 I recently posted the following message on Facebook:

I would like to announce that I have invented a new euphemism for sex: Sheboygan. Proper use: "woo hee, that is one sexy upper-Midwesterner. I sure would like to take her to Sheboygan."

The word is gender neutral (containing both 'she' and 'boy') and has the added quality of sounding like a Yiddish word used by vaudevillians.

Other examples: {sorry I didn't answer your text, we were on a trip to Sheboygan."

and

‘It was really disappointing, I thought the trip to Sheboygan would take all night, but we got there sooner than expected.’

What started as a joke is now a genuine question for me. Can I, someone with a relatively small audience, inspire widespread use of a new term?

Of course, people invent words all the time and celebrities have catch-phrases that stick. Stephen Colbert coined ‘Truthiness’ and The Simpsons’ writers invented “D’oh!” But these are people with real media power and for every phrase that gets into the popular consciousness, thousands fail. So, can I, someone with a relatively modest readership and a single Facebook post, create enough momentum that three months from now, I overhear strangers using the phrase in a coffee shop? Probably not.

In fact, marketing folks complain frequently about how their clients want something to “go viral.” People can’t make that happen. Large-scale impact is unpredictable and even with the best research and tremendous amounts of money, it is virtually impossible to guarantee success of anything. (For an illustration of this, listen to this outstanding podcast from Planet Money about trying to create hit songs.) 

Part of what makes this question so interesting is that language itself is a collective enterprise. It develops naturally and frequently evolves in exact opposition to how people steer it. There are dozens of worldwide organizations created to regulate languages in order to keep them “pure,” most of which are official governmental bodies. But it is unclear that any language could ever be pure or what purity in this context would mean in the first place. Language grows and changes as needs and habits do. For example, while Shakespeare is often performed using current British accents, some linguists believe that a more accurate depiction of Elizabethan English is Scottish, Appalachian, or even the Boston accent. Language is only rarely what we want it to be; it is rarely what we remember it as.

So, all I can do here is send out my new usage to the world and wait. I’ll update all of you if there is something worth telling, but for now, here are some of the uses of Sheboygan that people on Facebook have already suggested:

Marina: "If he didn't have so much Schmutz on his cheek after his construction job, I would have gone with him to Sheboygan."

Kelly: “I was worried about making that connection, but thankfully the train pulled out of Sheboygan right on time.”

Evan: “Bucknasty is the Mayor of Sheboygan.

Jack: “I bet that guy visits Sheboygan a lot!”
Matt: "I'm asking my wife, who grew up about an hour away, how often she went to Sheboygan."
Martin: "I bring all my friends to Sheboygan. It's what good friends do for one another."


Addendum:

While searching for an image for this post, I came across this now very disturbing medical office logo (let's hope they have a sense of humor):



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1 comment:

  1. I was listening to a story on NPR maybe a month ago that this reminds me of [and I thought of PQED as I listened to it]. It was about the use of the word "Monday" as a new derogatory term for black people. It was interesting because they discussed how it was supposed to be "secret," so the word could be used without everyone knowing what it means; however, it managed to spread from coast to coast [I think I remember them saying it was thought to have originated around Boston], so it was no longer an "underground" word, per se. I wish I could find the podcast because it really was interesting. Bottom line - I hope to hear the new use of "Sheboygan" around Phoenix.

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