When Good Words Go Bad

5 min read
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Is English biased against women?

Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

It’s not unusual for the meanings of words to shift over time. Linguists refer to this as semantic change, and there are many different types. For example, the referents of words can broaden as they take on metaphoric meanings—think of the “arms” or “legs” of a chair.

A word can become narrower in its meaning as well. In Old and Middle English, for example, “meat” referred to food of any type, but in Modern English the term is restricted to only the flesh of animals used for food.

Can semantic shift cause a word’s meaning to flip, such as changing from denoting something bad to something good? This process, called melioration, has also been documented in English.

“Nice,” for example, originally meant “foolish” or “ignorant,” and then it began to change. Shakespeare used the word in multiple ways, including to mean “precise” or “careful.” And by the late 18th century, it had taken on its more positive modern meaning—something like “pleasant” or “agreeable,” as in “a nice person.”

Let’s take a deeper look at the opposite process, called pejoration. Simply put, this is the name applied to good words going bad. Consider, for example, everyone’s favorite cartoon rodent. Mickey Mouse made his debut in a seven-minute short titled “Steamboat Willie” in 1928. One might assume that people would invoke Mickey’s name to mean something good.

But almost immediately afterward, according to The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term was used to refer to “a person or thing deemed to be lacking in value, size, or authenticity” (the dictionary cites the Jewish Chronicle as referring to “’Mickey-Mouse’ Zionism” in 1931). And in contemporary usage, a college student might derisively refer to a “Mickey Mouse elective” or to a “Mickey Mouse degree.”

It might seem strange that the beloved Disney mascot’s name has become a derogatory adjective, but semantic changes follow their own opaque logic and are often hard to predict.

In English, there is a concerning tendency for gendered terms, and female appellations in particular, to be seen as negative. The term “witch,” for example, has a lot more baggage than its male counterpart “warlock”. English has terms like the shrewish “fishwife” or the heartless “ice queen” but no “fish-husband” or “ice king,” and so on.

Consider the phrase “prima donna.” The OED records the term being used as early as 1754 to refer to the lead singer of an opera company. Originally, this meant someone “of great skill and renown.” But by the 19th century, we find the term used to refer to a self-important or temperamental woman, as in the statement “The crew were fed up with the star’s primadonna behaviour,” which appeared in a Glasgow newspaper in 2000.

Something similar seems to have happened with “diva.” The OED records the term as appearing in print in 1883 to refer to a female singer. But by 1988, the dictionary had recorded instances of the word being used to mean “temperamental and extremely demanding.”

For example, we find the New York Daily News in 2001 referring to hockey player Jaromir Jágr as “an enormous talent, but he comes with a ton of baggage and a reputation for being a diva.” (This term seems to have crossed the gender line and can be applied to difficult men as well as women.)

And in the 21st century we suddenly find the name “Karen” being used to refer to entitled women. This usage is so new that it hasn’t yet made its way into the OED, although the term was chosen as the Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year in 2020.

According to some sources, “Karen” arose as a pejorative label on the social media site Reddit in the mid-2010s and became amplified on Black Twitter. It is associated with a highly specific stereotype—blonde, white women with bob hairdos who will demand to see an establishment’s manager should something displease them.

The linguist Robin Queen has offered an interesting explanation for why “Karen,” out of all possible names, has become associated with the entitled stereotype. Social Security records reveal that Karen as a given name peaked in popularity in 1965, when it was the third most common name for girls.

But by 1986, it had dropped to the 100th most common girl’s name, and by 2020 it had fallen to 831st place—a staggering decline in popularity. By itself, this isn’t all that unusual, since given names in general, and female names in particular, are subject to precipitous changes in fashion.

But in 1965, as Queen points out, 84% of the U.S. population was non-Hispanic Caucasian, and so by the mid-2010s, many middle-aged white women—compared to those who were younger or older—were likely to possess this name.

As I write in my book, “Linguistic Fingerprints” How Language Creates and Reveals Identity,” gendered language has come under fire for a variety of reasons, but the tendency for pejorative language to be gendered provides yet another reason to be wary of terms that perpetuate negative stereotypes.

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