Did you know the word ‘nice’ originally derived from the Latin word ‘nescius’, meaning ignorant? Or that ‘awful’ used to mean awe-inspiring? That flirting once meant making a sharp movement? That ‘girl’, in Chaucer’s day, could refer to a child of either sex? Or that being ‘naughty’ once meant you were poor?
Communication is changing all the time, from one generation to the next, and especially when it comes to how we infer the meaning of words and expressions.
This year the Oxford English Dictionary added more than 1400 new words, senses and subentries, including ‘bae’ to describe a boyfriend or girlfriend, ‘bess’ meaning marvellous, ‘dickheaded’ meaning stupid, annoying and objectionable and ‘fart-catcher (you read it right) meaning a foot servant or page.
This kind of language evolution is what keeps journalists, copywriters and communication managers on their toes, but it’s fair to say that the modern digital world is adding to the challenge.
The OED now includes new words and phrases coined as a result of language used in texts and instant messaging apps - and it can be an increasingly difficult task to keep the colloquialism of modern messaging out of the boardroom.
Even highly educated Millennials and Gen Zedders are so immersed in the worlds of Whatsapp and Snapchat that persuading them to use more formal language and grammar in office communications is no easy task.
The big question is: does it matter?
Are we overly obsessed with formality in business? Or does effective communication depend on everyone obeying the same grammatical rules to ensure we all understand each other?
Certainly, the very point of communication is to communicate - to pass on a message in a way in which it is clearly understood, and to ensure that what is implied is exactly what is inferred. So, a shared rulebook helps achieve that goal and protects a business’ reputation and identity in the process.
Even in these progressive days, a badly written, overly colloquial email, typed entirely in lower case and without punctuation, is a complete turn-off for many people and likely to be perceived as unprofessional.
A social media policy at a progressive business will normally include guidance on grammar and punctuation for that very reason.
Setting the tone of messaging is also vital if a business wants to radiate its ethics and values effectively. But, it’s also worth remembering that the real art of the communicator is to use the right language for the right audience.
A good copywriter can produce 1000 words of highly technical language aimed at subject matter experts - and then turn it into 300 words which can be easily understood by those who know little or nothing about the topic. They can write for the Times or The Sun, for websites aimed at pensioners and those aimed at teenagers.
Achieving that versatility means staying ahead of the language curve and understanding that the rulebook is not as rigid as some would have us believe.
A debate broke out online recently, for instance, about the use of punctuation in WhatsApp messages.
According to internet language expert Gretchen McCulloch, Generation Z increasingly sees the use of a full stop on instant messaging as ‘aggressive’.
Apparently, because the full stop is generally accompanied by lowering the voice to indicate the end of a sentence, it carries connotations of formality or seriousness. This means it looks out of place or confusing on the end of a ‘lol’ - and is now perceived as a way of aggressively ending a conversation.
With so many businesses turning to messaging apps in a bid to reach younger consumers, it’s the kind of language evolution which cannot just be ignored or mocked (even if it seems preposterous to those schooled in the old ways).
So, if you’re thinking of having a naughty but nice flirt with an awful girl be careful you know exactly what it means - and maybe give the full stop a miss