Sunday, September 6, 2015

Robert Downey Words

After Robert Downey, Jr., walked out of a TV interview during which the reporter brought up the actor's former drug abuse, Downey's defenders agreed: he had reformed, and there is no call to bring up his dissolute past.

Words, too, can reform themselves, giving us no call to dredge up their once-dark lives.

Linguists call the mysterious process whereby a pejorative sheds its negative connotation over time amelioration.

Like guests at a Hollywood party, we're surrounded by words (and phrases) that have—over history—ameliorated:
  • 30 years ago, bad meant crummy, sick meant unwell, wicked meant vicious, killer meant murderer, and shut up meant be quiet. 
  • 70 years ago, collaborating meant aiding the Nazis, and a geek meant a freak in a circus.
  • 200 years ago, lumber meant trash.
  • 800 years ago, pretty meant cunning, shrewd meant evil, and nice meant stupid.

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