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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 420-422
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Changes In Progress
Lexical Change, Language Change
Luanne Von Schneidemesser, Dictionary of American Regional English
In the course of my work at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), I have come across evidence of many linguistic phenomena, such as rhotacism, hypercorrection, metanalysis, assimilation, and, yes, the creation and extinction of terms from active vocabulary. Our language, including our lexical usage, is constantly changing.
We have often heard the opinion that language differences are becoming minimized due to the influence of mass media and the ease of global communication. Television is homogenizing us, people cry. I began to wonder how great these influences were, especially on the many words and expressions not commonly heard in the media. How many times do you hear snap beans or bell peppers discussed by the media? Bill Clinton and I are still saying, "I don't know him from Adam's off-ox"; his saying it got it into the media. Have others thus picked up the expression since then? More people have at least become aware of it, but I doubt they use it because of this occurrence.
I suppose in a sitcom a character could talk about hooking school or skipping, or one partner could tell the other to put the trash out on the terrace or parking for the weekly pickup. It could happen on television. And of course mass marketing and commerce do affect us: the interviews DARE carried out between 1965 and 1970 show terms such as enchilada and taco to [End Page 420] be regional, used mostly in the Southwest. But since the popularity of Mexican food in the United States developed, and "Mexican" restaurants and such chains as Taco Bell have spread across the country, you can buy enchiladas in every state, even in Italian restaurants. By 1991, when DARE's second volume came out, enchilada was no longer regional; we labeled it "orig SW, CA but now widely recognized." And today you might hear or read the phrase the big enchilada anywhere; do a search with any Web search engine and you'll get dozens of hits. Rather rapid language change. Or is it cultural change?
When my children were younger, I heard them using terms when playing games that they had not learned from us parents, nor were they the terms which, according to DARE, should be said in Wisconsin. They used, for example, homebase, not the Wisconsin goal, for the place where the player who is "it" has to wait and count while others hide in the game hide-and-seek. I had theorized that while lexical change could be rapid, as enchilada showed, terms for established children's games should not show this since these terms were not bandied about in the media, either print or video. One child learns from another child, probably from an older sibling or neighbor, I thought. To test my theory, I carried out a survey in 1994-95 with the help of friends and colleagues, using DARE questions about children's games (von Schneidemesser 1996). I grew up in Kansas saying king's ex when I wanted to rest during a game of tag. My children thought that was hilarious. They and their friends at that time said T's or time out or times. DARE showed king's ex to be the common term used in the late 1960s throughout the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and everywhere west of the Mississippi River. Yet of a total of almost 300 informants aged 16 to 35 in 1994-95, only 2 (from Arizona and Texas) responded with king's ex. My informants said time out, which DARE shows chiefly east of the Mississippi River, and to a lesser extent time. And my children and their friends, at the time at least ten years younger than my informants, in saying T's, may well have been picking up on the actions of football referees, who make a T symbol with their hands to call a time-out. Aha, media influence.
Of course language is changing. It...