A Comic Vocabulary

The Bugs Bunny ShowLearning about strange etymology last week got me thinking about where we absorb our vocabularies from and in what ways those sources end up changing language. It’s interesting how much entertainment and technology can affect how we speak.

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My favorite comic strip will always be Calvin & Hobbes. As a kid with a growing vocabulary, I was able to see each large word of Calvin’s in context, unlike a random list of vocabulary. Also, that context was generally comical; I still use transmogrify on a regular basis. And unlike many books or comics built around a specific grade level, Calvin isn’t afraid of three-syllable words. He uses them with gusto, much to the chagrin of his parents. There is even an SAT vocabulary site that pulls from the comic!

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The mixed audience for Looney Tunes meant that some viewers got the jokes (usually the adults) and some didn’t (usually the kids). I never really considered before that a joke going over someone’s head is the perfect beginning for a new definition or connotation of a word. For instance, consider nimrod. This is now slang for idiot or jerk, but before this definition, it meant “mighty hunter,” since it referenced Nimrod, a hunter in the Bible. Bugs Bunny is considered responsible for this shift in meaning. He referred ironically to Elmer Fudd as a nimrod to poke fun at Fudd’s lack of hunting skills. However, some viewers weren’t aware of the joke Bugs made, and the word came to mean idiot” instead.

Technology

English has also shifted in response to texting, email, and other electronic formats. I am a purist and will spell all words out with correct punctuation, but younger generations see whole words as cumbersome. While this doesn’t seem to affect spelling or punctuation skills in the long run, a much stronger dichotomy has developed between formal and informal communication in the last decade. Even email has changed from more of a proper letter to a quick note without a signature, depending on the recipient.

Thanks to technology and its often truncated use of language, we’ve gained abbreviations like OMG and TTYL. Though perhaps less inventive than Shakespeare’s additions to the English language, they’re still new words. Technology has also changed our use of two spaces after a sentence (a relic of typewriter days) to one space, thanks to the magically kerned text in word processing programs.

Sitcoms

Finally, sitcoms are also an interesting source of new words and phrases. Sitcom itself was born of television’s situation comedies. I was watching Friends on Netflix a few weeks ago (like you do), when Phoebe said something about a BFF. Everyone stopped and looked at her inquisitively. She then said, in Phoebe fashion, “Oh. You know. Best friends forever.” Was that not a thing before Friends? I looked up when the phrase was coined, and according to the Huffington Post, it showed up around 1996, which was about when that episode aired. Do we owe Phoebe for this popular abbreviation? After all, we owe Joey for “the meat sweats” (which are totally a real thing), so why not?

English changes with the world around us, so hold on tight—who knows what will become commonplace when we get holographic transmogrifying super computers.

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