"Because" Is Now A Preposition And "Selfie" Is The Word Of The Year! Thoughts On Language Evolution Versus Language Conservatism

I believe very strongly that language is a living, responsive thing. We are constantly developing news ways of expressing things because we are thinking of new things, conceiving of new possibilities.
Publish date:
November 25, 2013
words, nerd stuff, language

Here's a thing that interests me: there are both conservative and innovative word forms. Conservative forms are those that haven't changed very much over time. Innovative forms are ones that have been bent and shaped (maybe even mangled) and otherwise thoroughly changed from what we might consider their original forms to be. We preserve some words as useful just as they are and we adapt others so that they are useful in new and fascinating ways.

The Internet seems to have sped up this process of word adaptation in some ways -- perhaps simply by virtue of involving more people more quickly. You don't have just a geographically-based spread of new language because you aren't waiting for words to physically move across physical space. You've got folks hashtagging (a new word in and of itself) and using community-specific jargon (right in the feels) and it's all happening in metaphorical spaces that can, theoretically, be accessed by anyone.

I love that.

I love that specifically because I believe very strongly that language -- and by that I mean both word usage specifically and grammar in general -- is a living, responsive thing. We are constantly developing news ways of expressing things because we are thinking of new things, conceiving of new possibilities.

I mean, I'm sorry to go all Wittgenstein on you but: the limits of my language are the limits of my world. And when we push the limits of our world, we MUST discover and develop new language to not only describe and define that new space but to invite others into it with us.

There are three word things making me think about this theory and praxis of language stuff:

  1. "Because" is now a preposition.
  2. "Selfie" is the word of the year.
  3. "Fitnessing" makes people lose their shit in the comments. (See: every post that uses the word.)

Traditionally, "because" is a conjunction that links two parts of a sentence, the second generally being explanatory regarding the first. In other words, we use "because" because we want to explain something we began our sentence with. (I end sentences with preposition BECAUSE it is a totally acceptable thing to do.)

But what happens on the internet is that sometimes people use pictures -- or sentence structure that doesn't reflect established grammar in order to convey a specific emotional/contextual meaning. Generally, it's a shorthand so they don't have to type out a hundred and fifty tiresome words. Instead, like, they can just post an image of a cat sitting on a fence post. The audience knows what that means. When "because" is used in a prepositional role, it serves the same purpose. When I say, "Because reasons" -- you know that I have reasons and they're probably emotional rather than logical and it'd be a waste of both our time to spell them out. When I say, "Because xoJane" -- you're going to get what I mean in context without me having to spell out all of the things that we both already know.

In that sense, the usage conveys both irony (which the Atlantic story dwells on) and intimacy -- there is an implied understanding that not only are you already privy to the reasons not being unpacked, you are at least sympathetic to or amused by them in a similar fashion. The prepositional use of "because" emphasizes community ties -- because you aren't just going to use it with anyone. Because community.

Selfies are a hot topic for a lot of reasons -- Lesley wrote with her usual eloquence about why she loves selfies and I agree with that post, y'all. Insert a hundred pictures of a cat on a fence post here, okay? The word itself is stirring folks up though -- it's not in the Oxford English Dictionary, which tends to be regarded as the ultimate lexicographical stamp of approval, but it's part of the general Oxford Dictionaries (added in August). (Though it is important to remember that lexicographers are not traffic cops.) And it is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013.

I was not expecting the backlash on that.

But the word of the year is chosen based on significant usage and selfie was used a LOT in 2013. Apparently, its usage increased by 17,000%, in fact. Not 17% or 170%. It increased by seventeen THOUSAND percent. That's just a little bit mind blowing. It's not just that we were taking more selfies in 2013 -- it's that we were talking about them. Kind of incessantly.

That sort of usage increase is amazing, especially for a word that was only coined (as far as Oxford Dictionaries can tell) in 2002.

I like the word. I think it's lighthearted and doesn't take itself too seriously. (The -ie ending instead of a -y, though that -y is also an accepted spelling variant according to the dictionary, is a diminutive construct and it makes me think of puppies and kitties and affectionate nicknames.)

And of course I love that people are both enacting visibility for themselves (especially folks generally expected to be invisible) and talking about visibility and what it means -- what it might mean, what it should mean, what it could mean.

Before "selfie" was coined, we used "self-portrait" and that's a very stuffy, formal word. I mean, it's a hyphenate. And it's generally the realm of artists, people who take self-portraiture seriously as an art form. A selfie isn't meant to be art; it's just a snapshot. And I wonder if the phenomenon of selfies would be so very talked about if we didn't have a word specifically conveying that.

I do get that there are people who hate both selfies themselves and the word used to name them -- the uncomfortable irony there is that the 17,000% increase in usage includes a lot of people who are talking about how much they hate selfies. This is how words of the year get made.

"Fitnessing" is never going to be a word of the year -- which I'm sure is a huge relief to the contingent of readers who loathe it. Fortunately, I don't think anyone who's a fan of it had such lofty ambitions for it in the first place. Instead, fitnessing is one of those words that signals community -- at least to the folks who use it.

It's a gerund. It means physical activity, but not just the physical activity that is part of being active, like going dancing or walking around the farmer's market. It means physical activity with a goal of improved fitness -- improved fitness as distinct from "exercise," which to many people falls exclusively in the realm of weight-loss efforts.

I realize there are people who don't get why having an alternate word is a big deal to some folks. And that's actually totally fine. The point of using fitnessing to describe my own efforts to improve my physical fitness isn't to mandate that others use the word, too, or that they use it for the same reasons. I use it to reclaim physical activity for me, to make it distinct from all of the punitive exercise I was forced into as a fat kid -- and as a fat adult participating in the compulsory self-flagellation and self-hatred of diet culture. It's nice to have a word that isn't associated with all of that.

"Exercise" has its roots in Latin: exercere, which means to keep busy or practice. It's not a bad word on its own. And "fitnessing" makes no pretense of replacing it in common usage. Having more words to describe variations on things can only be better, to my mind.

Of course, if you don't understand or just flat out don't believe that some people have traumatic memories of compulsory exercise, you might not agree. And that's cool -- that means you don't have to use the word to describe your own efforts. I'm kind of honestly baffled, y'all, that there is so much rage over people naming their experiences with physical movement something different. Though perhaps I shouldn't be -- even as language adapts, a lot of people don't like that kind of change, which is why we're culturally talking about the "because" thing and "selfie" as a word in the first place.

Obviously, not everyone is a fan of the rapid changes we are witnessing in our word pools and grammars -- or of the frivolous paths down which we sometimes wind up, linguistically meandering. I think a bunch of that is down to how American schools teach grammar -- as though there is one immutable form from which we must never deviate.

It's just that never deviating from those old rules sounds so boring to me.

Give me more words. Give me words that have nuance and slightly different connotations from one another. Give me nouns that are verbed and conjunctions that are used in a prepositional style. Give me meaning, in whatever way we can fathom it. Usage will win out -- popular forms ebb and flow and words die out almost completely over time. It's the natural evolution of language.

And I think it's exciting to be a part of it. Even if you hate "because" as a preposition and "selfie" as word of the year and "fitnessing" as a topic here at xoJane, I'm excited you're a part of the evolution of language, too. Because the world: let's define it.