Friday, 18 November 2011

Linguistics in the news - really!

Normally when I write of linguistics being in the news, what I mean is that there is a news item with a linguistic angle that I can write about, or that some news item is about language and I can discuss the 'proper' linguistics behind it. This time, the BBC has attempted a genuine linguistics item.

It's a funny article (funny peculiar) - it's about the word disgust, and the headline is that it's changed a lot over time; how could this have happened? But then it's linked to some kind of study which is completely non-linguistic in nature, about what people think about various crimes. Anyway, this is the main point:
Originally "disgust" was used to express distaste for rotten food or filth. Today it's deployed against looters, phone hackers and others whose actions many find morally murky.
Then there's the obligatory Shakespeare reference: he never used it, apparently - but that's fair enough as the article says the word only came to us from French in 1601, when he was getting on a bit. 

A chap called Gerry Breslin from Collins Language (the dictionary makers, I presume) tells us that it is 
from the Old French "desgouster" meaning distaste, loathe or dislike, in the sense of giving a bad taste to one's mouth.
Now, says the BBC, it is used for moral outrage. People doing bad things disgusts us, rather than rotten food and so on. Although, the article notes, 
It was also used to mean aversion, but took another 200 years to gain widespread usage.
They don't provide any evidence of this. I think they might be referring to the graph they provide, which shows the frequency of the word disgusted in the Google books corpus:

This doesn't show that the 'aversion' meaning spiked in 1800 (i.e. 200 years after 1601). What it shows is that disgusted (the adjectival form, and any coincidentally similar form of the verb, such as the passive participle) spiked in 1800. We don't know what the intended meaning of the usage was. A massive increase in usage might show a broadening of meaning, as it's used in more contexts, but we just don't know without more information. The article links the 1800 spike with the urban influx found with the Industrial Revolution. (Incidentally, a commenter points out that Google Books doesn't recognise the long 's', so if you search on difgufted you get a 1750 spike.)

I think the graph might be intended to illustrate the unattributed quote in the article (I think it's Mr Breslin again):
Nowadays people and attitudes can disgust us rather than tastes and smells. The verb has lost its currency, but we do use the adjective disgusting to cover all of these usages.
He has a point - it's rare now to say This meat disgusts me. We're far more likely to describe it as disgusting, whereas people's actions (looting, rioting) may still disgust us. That's just my feeling though, and seeing as it's impossible to get Google Books to tell the difference between the verbal and adjectival forms, the graph can't tell us. 

I'm not at all sure we can say it's changed its meaning all that much, if it was used in that way even back in the 1600s and is still used of filth today. And it's not even a very big meaning change, simply an extension. It's a bog-standard literal > metaphorical shift, although I bet when we got it from French it was already metaphorical. 

Still, the article has given us the opportunity to discuss 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells', which is a cultural thing I've always known about but have no idea where it comes from. Strangely, a newspaper historian notes that it's appeared only three times in the 200 years of the Times digital archive, already as a cliche. You'd expect it a bit more often in a leading newspaper, if it was to become so well-known. In 1978, the article tells us, 
Radio 4 called its new listener feedback programme Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells. (It has since been renamed the rather more prosaic Feedback.)
They also mention an early use, from 1868:
"Yours, &c., Disgusted" wrote to the Musical Standard about the position of an organ in a Kennington chapel.
So even its first recorded use is tongue-in-cheek (at least, one hopes that the correspondent was not genuinely disgusted by a matter so trivial). 

Not one to miss an opportunity to analyse the language of politicians, they are claimed to use it a lot because it's such a powerful word. And of course, we get a little bit of faux-phonetics (Breslin again): 
The s sounds and the harsh g and final t help to make it a very sonorous and impactful word.
So all-in-all, a wide-ranging article putting linguistics in the news. (OK, not news, as it's from the magazine. But in the news media.) I'm all for this and glad that it got published. And the comments display only a minor amount of disgust at the way language is being ruined by misuse. 

Just for the record, though, there isn't really a [g] sound in the word, as it comes out more like a [k]. And it's not really 'harsh' - that comes from the way you say it. And [s], [g] and [t] are some of the least sonorant sounds there are. But still - good try, BBC. Good try. 

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