A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
"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.
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.