The Long Tail of Language

As someone who does a lot of writing, I occasionally think about words — their derivations and usages. What’s I’ve been mulling over in my mind lately is, for lack of a better phrase, the "Long Tail of Language."

How is it that certain words are either formed (or transformed) by specific subcultures, essentially creating a niche dialect? How do these words then enter the mainstream? How significant is the mass media in all this?

Every industry has its own coded language. Name the group — Wall Street, Sports, Technology, Music, Accountants, Lawyers, Sci-Fi fans — they each have their own unique words, phrases, and jargon. The verbiage makes membership part of a subculture where you are hip (or at least an insider) and helps to hold the outside world at bay.

Given my interest in Psychology and Investor Sentiment, I am curious about how these memes travel thru "the crowd."

Sites like wordspy, help sow the seeds of the move from niche to mainstream to cliche. Indeed, Wired magazine covers this transition with its section on Wired – Tired – Expired.

My favorite recent example is bling-bling. Originally an urban colloquilism, it moved into hip hop, then to MTV, which gave it entree to the rest of Television. From there, the step to white suburbia was a gimme.

Now, its become a marketing phrase for Target.

In my field, I wonder about how these ill advised "rules" get started, then circulated, and finally accepted as fact (when they are not).  As a species, do we tend to accept spouted aphorisms from supposed experts unexamined? That explanation goes a long way towards explaining some of the self-destructive investor behavior we witness . . . 

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  1. james commented on Dec 19

    herd animals, herd animals, herd animals…we all just want to belong…repeat…herd, herd, herd…

    it’s that simple…

  2. D. commented on Dec 19

    I live in the burbs and one thing that amazes me is how far people will go to look rich when they are just paupers. It’s hard to take them seriously because I work in private management and I’m surrounded by real wealth. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the wannabes.

    I agree with james, people in general have this insatiable need to belong AND to stand out… contradictory perhaps?

  3. RW commented on Dec 19

    For years I resisted “impact” as a verb — as in “lost sales impacted the bottom line” (didn’t much care for “bottom line” either now that I think of it) — but it became so prevalent in technical writing that I gave up: Languages, particularly analytic languages w/ wide global use such as English, just change; often. Linguists have been analyzing this phenomenon for many years and the variation is far greater than some may realize; here’s a link to a PowerPoint show that briefly lays out some of the ways linguists look at it.


  4. RW commented on Dec 19

    I meant to add to my previous post but was called away. For those interested in language there are a number of excellent authorities (Dell Hymes comes to mind) but for anyone interested in the broader picture of language, its origins and influence on the human species (and like me don’t consider Chomsky’s version persuasive), I can’t think of a better and more potent overview than George Steiner’s “After Babel” (reference below). Steiner is a translator rather than a linguist and has a wide range of knowledge and interests so don’t be fooled by the subtitle. It’s a lot of book, with detail if you want it, but Steiner writes well and you can cruise the high spots as you like.

    Steiner, George. (1992). After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. (2nd. ed.). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Note: the second edition is preferred, not simply because it corrects a few relatively minor errors (most of which only a linguist would notice) but because the original preface and Steiner’s addendum for the newer edition are worth reading in their own right.


  5. MAH commented on Dec 19

    “What’s I’ve been mulling over in my mind lately is, for lack
    of a better phrase, the “Long Tail of Language.” ”

    Why not just make ‘esoteric’ the root and then you could refer to the esoterism or something along those likes for a word or phrase.

  6. Journey commented on Dec 21

    Living in Language

    Much of what I plan to write about has to do with how our brains work. My understanding is that we, as humans, live in language. That is, we constantly make new interpretations of the world we live in, and we make these interpretations in language.

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