"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."
—from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

We normally encounter the noun apostasy in a religious context, to denote the phenomenon of flouting or abandoning orthodox religious views. If you search the word in the news, most of the hits that come up are in relation to countries where adherence to the majority religion is all but compulsory, and persons deemed to be apostate are dealt with quite harshly. The word is from Greek, and the roots mean "stand outside."

Conventionally speaking, only people can be apostates. But in fact words are perhaps the most successful and frequent apostates of all. Words step outside of their borders all the time; and once they are in new territory, they rarely follow the rules that bound them in their original context.  As time passes, they can become complete strangers to their original users, and may even be seen as betraying them.

We were thinking about this the other day while reading one of our favorite observers of language, "Philologos," who writes a column for the Jewish daily, the Forward. In a column from earlier this year, he noted that the majority of Yiddish words that are naturalized in English have approximately the same meanings in English as they do in Yiddish. But he was aghast at hearing Vice President Joe Biden use the Yiddish import shtick in a way that he, Philologos, thought was incorrect. What Biden said was:

What is the shtick out there? [That] this is a dysfunctional place, [and] can't get anything done. The single most important thing to do for the markets is to convince them that "No, no, no, that's not true, we can handle difficult decisions and make them!"

Biden used shtick to characterize the position of critics of administration policy. Is that what shtick means? Philologos doesn't think so, and he is further dismayed when he finds Biden's usage of the word supported in a contemporary English dictionary definition. The 1995 Encarta World English Dictionary has this entry,

in which sense number three closely matches what Biden seemed to mean in characterizing criticism of the White House. "Only non-Jews who did not grow up with shtick could have redefined it in such a way," Philologos observes.

That observation pretty well sums up why it is that words imported into a language are very likely to lose their bearings and go native at some point: users of the word in the new language will lack the associations and resonances of the word in its native setting — or to put it another way, they will be completely unaware of the word's baggage — and so there will be little to stop the word from adapting to whatever purposes its new users deem suitable for it.

From the moment that shtick stepped out of the shtetl there was a chance that it would be taken up by those who were not entirely familiar with its associations and range of denotation, and who might put it to other uses. It's the case of a word introduced by a linguistic minority that has been pressed into an entirely new line of work by majority speakers. The new meaning of shtick certainly has not displaced the old, and it's not likely to — but it has been used often enough in the new way to come to the notice of lexicographers, and to gain legitimacy in a dictionary definition.

This kind of lexical apostasy can work in the opposite direction as well, and doesn't even have to involve more than one language: a word in the mainstream vocabulary can consort with a minority speech community who bend it to a new meaning in their vernacular, and then return it to the mainstream — changed beyond recognition, often to the dismay of the many. The contemporary poster child of this process is the adjective gay, which picked up a new career in a fringe community that has now all but displaced its older avatar in standard English.

No English speaker today has any misapprehension about what gay means; the first definition of it in dictionaries that order senses by the frequency of their use is "homosexual." The most frequent nouns following the adjective gay in English today are (in order) men, marriage, rights, people, and community. But it wasn't always so. In the first half of the 20th century, the words most likely to follow gay were Paree, Lothario, cockade, Nineties, and cretonne. These gay companions all accord with earlier meanings of gay: "given to social pleasures," "full of high-spirited merriment," "brightly colored," "offering fun and gaiety," and so forth.

Readers of a certain age may recall that this radical shift in the use of gay did not happen without detractors.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, writers and columnists, mainly of a conservative or religious stripe, decried the appropriation of gay by a minority speech community. Some of these outcries were poorly disguised homophobic rants; others were more tempered laments, in the spirit of Philologos' recent observation, of the dilution of a useful and cherished word in a way that felt out of keeping with its history.

Lovers of language should not be faulted for their reactions to language change; of course something of the old is lost when a word takes up new career options. The use of shtick in the way that Joe Biden used it, though still infrequent, may be viewed by lovers of shtick as a dilution of its core meaning. The great distance that gay has traveled makes the singing of any number of standards hardly possible today without a wink of the eye or a moment of embarrassment: the diphthong in gay is one of the most frequent in English, and the opportunities for rhyme in poetry and lyrics are legion with such words. But these days, if you're going to sing a lyric like "For it was fiesta and they were so gay," you probably need a full orchestral backup to cover up your moment of self-consciousness about a double entendre.

Are some new word meanings undesirable, or should they be stopped in their tracks or discouraged? There will always be some people who say, loudly and vehemently, "Yes!" But history nearly always proves that these protesters were on the losing side. The strength and force of language police will never be such that they can stop the development of new word meanings — such policing efforts are as futile as, and in fact quite analogous to, the efforts of health officials to stop the spread of viruses that have the ability to cleverly mutate and propagate faster than their pursuers can catch them. Words step out and reinsert themselves in new contexts just as successfully and frequently as little bits of DNA do, and just as often with unknown consequences that can only be observed after the fact.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 1st 2011, 7:40 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
homophobic=the fear of the genus of bipedal primates that includes modern humans and several extinct forms, distinguished by their large brains and a dependence upon tools? Or(Greek), fear of the same? Same anything? One could have a gay time with this or should one be fearful of featherless bipeds?
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 7:58 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
I remember Cary Grant's character saying "I just went gay all of a sudden!" in 1938"s "Bringing Up Baby" to explain why he was wearing Katherine Hepburn's character's dressing gown.

And of course "homo" in "homophobic" is Greek, not Latin, and thus has nothing to do with men or hominids... Same way we don't say aquaphobia or felinophobia. But I suspect you knew that, Gordon?
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 9:49 AM
Comment by: MAry M. (Saint Paul, MN)
I am happy to see acceptance of new word usages being supported, but even though Encarta gives a sense related to "exaggerate" for shtick, I read Biden's piece as using it in its meaning of "story" with a sense of repetition, which is implied in the Yiddish. Your "shtick" is something you do or say over and over to the point where it characterizes you.
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 9:52 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The term "gay" continues to evolve; among young people, mostly males, it has come to mean an insult along the lines of "lame." In this sense it obviously derives from homophobia, but has softened its contours such that it can be used fairly generically without specifically invoking homophobic stereotypes.

Your point about words being borrowed from another language and getting a semantic tweak is a fun one. A friend of mine likes to point out that in Spanish, the term "fajita" did not (originally) mean what's it's come to mean in Mexican-American cuisine, where it's generally used to mean a platter of sizzling bits of steak with peppers and onions. "Fajita" simply means "little strip," a rather more general term in its original sense.

>"Are some new word meanings undesirable, or should they be stopped in their tracks or discouraged?"

Interesting question, but it's hard to imagine a process for how this would actually work, or more practically, examples where such an effort has been successful. As Peter Sokolowski said not long ago, "Languages certainly do follow rules, but they don't follow orders."
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Hillary C. (Minneapolis, MN)
I'm worried about "literally."
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Speaking of "literally," shtick or ( shtik) literally means "piece" or "part." Used in a sentence: "You want I should bring you a nice shtick cake?" Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, warns: "Never say a shtik 'of' anything."
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Fun article. Mike P. is right about the evolving meaning for "gay"; my sons had to explain to me years ago why kids used this term liberally in such a nonsexual context. I found it offensive; they said it was not intended as such (other than to call out lameness--another evolved term). I'm sure non-native speakers, especially, find all this context-as-meaning highly confusing.

On a side note, Rob Lowe's character's shtick on the show Parks and Recreation is to sprinkle the word "literally"--wrongly as many do--throughout his comments. Lowe--the actor--knows it's a shtick (he commented about it on a talk show) but I suspect many in the audience have not caught on. ...
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
To amend Nancy's point, "shtick" in the sense she notes is related to the German word "Stück," which of course means exactly the same thing -- both a literal piece of something (cake, say) as well as the more metaphoric sense of something like a piece of theater.
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Hal G. (Aurora, OH)
Let's wait and see if it was a "placed" word (pandering to the audience) or something he might use normally. I can see the tie in if he was referring to the protests as a some sort of pre-scripted routine or organized act. Anyway, the second sentence is way more frightening.
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 5:30 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments. Mike P and Susan C -- I was aware of this other recent meaning of "gay" but decided not to include it in the piece, in the interest of keeping it more focused. The "lame" sense, from what I've observed, is still fairly limited in circulation and doesn't really figure in corpus data. Whether it goes mainstream remains to be seen, and if it does, I think it's not likely to be till current adolescents are all grown up, and people of our generation are all gay (i.e., lame -- in the old sense).

On another point of Mike's: you're right, English certainly never can be policed; but I think in other, smaller languages, especially those with a soi disant governing body, there are in fact active attempts to keep some new meanings from developing or gaining currency.
Thursday May 10th 2012, 6:40 PM
Comment by: Jane M.
We have a poster up in my high school classroom.
"Gay" is not a synonym for "stupid." Use another word! (And other choices are listed in the background:) unfortunate, erroneous, mistaken, wrong, asinine, unintelligent...
School surveys show that at least three quarters of the student body have heard "gay" used frequently, a sort of all-purpose put-down with a shade of homophobia.
Friday May 11th 2012, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Lesley (Santa Cruz, CA)
To respond to Susan C, Mike P and Jane M - Hmmmm that nasty little 'gay' word. 'Gay' is a put down - short, sweet and to the point! Whether one's children inform us it's not really meant as such, is not the point. It's a put-down, which is the point. Remember back in the 'good old days' when the n-word was in common usage? Many people thought it was just fine to use. The same applies here today. Homophobia is alive and well and it is our responsibility as adults to check bigotry and discrimination in all it's forms! Please reconsider your views on this...ask any young adult who identifies as homosexual how they felt when this 'shade' of homophobia was used whilst they were still closeted.

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