The Words We’ve Come to Love: We May Be In Trouble
Posted by Peter Feldman
What are the two hot words for 2011? I’m voting for “social” and “app.”
Let’s start with “social.” With the ubiquity of “social media” these days — everyone and their Uncle Earl is on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogging away through the night — the catch-all generic term for these activities has become so mainstream that advertisers wanting to reach into the wallets of this cyber-savvy crowd to sell them, well, anything from bras to patio furniture, has decided to play off of “social media” and build the “social” concept into their pitch. I’m not talking about companies advertising on social media platforms; that’s been going on for quite a while and isn’t even interesting any more.
I’m talking about the word “social” itself, and I’m interested in it from a language perspective. Why? Because our language shapes our thought. I’d go a step further and say our language determines our thought – what we can and do think, and what we simply can’t think at all. If there are no words for something in the language(s) we know, no detailed thought about it is possible. OK, enough about that.
What does the “viral” (a term for another day) use of “social” mean for what the word itself will come to mean? If social becomes the buzz word for anything and everything (e.g., a sale on towels at Target Stores as a way to become more “social”), then the word itself will ultimately lose the meaning it has traditionally had of people interacting with other people.
It’s really interesting that we can point to computer applications (apps) as the source of a change in the meaning of “social.” We already know, of course, that computers have now so insinuated themselves into our social lives that The Borg of Star Trek fame may have to leave the realm of science fiction. We now locate our soulmates via computer, along with our homes, jobs, cars, pets, linens, shoes, and all of our entertainment. So the computer, via language as well as technology, has become as much of a social force in our lives as Uncle Earl himself. Actually, a great deal more.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I’m a marketing guy by trade, and if throwing the word “social” around mercilessly will help buy my client (and thus perhaps me) a 60-foot sailboat or a photo safari in Kenya, I’m there. I have been accused of wanting to hold the line on language evolution, like the French Academy. That’s not actually true. It’s the dumbing down I’m worried about. When words become meaningless, thought becomes blurry and amorphous, and when that happens. Well, let’s just hope that all nuclear weapons are destroyed before we start watering our crops with Gatorade because they have “electrolytes.”
I was going to add the word “app” to this random musing on the hot words of the year, but really, the only thing interesting is that it’s short for “application,” and I bet half the people who use the word “app” as they download assorted stuff to their iPads, iPhones, Droids, and other devices don’t know that. So eventually the word “application” will disappear entirely. I don’t think I like the sound of “One app of this ointment on your scalp will make you smarter.”
Sidenote: It’s interesting that Microsoft is opposing Apple’s trademark of the phrase “App Store.”