A column for my school paper. (It's here first, though.)
English, the saying goes, is a living language. Contrary to what you learned in school (and to the theatrics of self-appointed Defenders of the Faith like William Safire) ain't is in the dictionary. And speaking as an undeclared linguistics major, Jeff Luttermoser's September 24th column -- "Slang words lower quality of language" -- was whack.
First item of business: dictionaries. What right does Merriam-Webster have to include, among the ten thousand 2003 Edition additions, the word phat? Why the sudden change? Dictionaries haven't always included topical phrases like killer app, have they? Why succomb to the creep of antiintellectualism?
The purpose a dictionary hasn't changed: define words for those who don't know them. More surprising, though, dictionary policy hasn't changed: comb popular newspapers and magazines for words entering wide usage. If a word's incidence passes a certain threshold and remains there long enough, include it. What has changed is the rest of society. Writing standards at the aforementioned magazines and papers have become more relaxed, witty, and conversational, so their lexicon has expanded to encompass new stuff, and, in turn, people need to know more words (and more current words), which the clever Webster world-gathering system automatically provides.
This is a good thing. Language has no intrinsic logic; it's a communications tool governed by usage and concensus. In the 7th century the word bad actually meant gay, but people said the old English equivalent of that's so gay so often that eventually "bad" just meant bad -- and you don't hear gay rights activists complaining, because the word has become completely disassociated from its original meaning: nobody thinks it's anything but "non-good", so it isn't. Similarly, a 19th century reader would consider my use of contractions a sign of moral degeneracy (that's one of the reasons Huck Finn was banned) but today it just brings a slight frown to my editor's face.
Now on to the sticky part. Luttermoser argues that this slang-addled generation is "too ignorant to learn our own language". I would invite him to compare a random page from an Unabridged Webster with its Oxford English equivalent: about half the entries in the latter are missing from the former -- and vice versa. New words rarely penetrate the psyches of the entire English-speaking world, and when they do, they rarely stay for long.
But by and large, additional words don't decohere, they enrich. The English language has a vocabulary twice as large as most others, which is one reason so much good literature gets written in it: we can say regal, or royal, or kingly, and they all mean slightly different things; in French there's only one word. Similarly, it's great to have dope, fly, and ill to describe a song's innovative sound, rather than just cool.
As for people having "given up on the concept of annunciation": as long as you can understand what's said, calling for someone to speak differently is being a snob. If an accent or dialect makes them sound uneducated, that's your problem: listen to the content, not the presentation, and alter your connotations accordingly.
But this is all a sidetrack. We should be concentrating on what's important: the etymology of phat.
Though new to the mainstream, it can be traced back at least 60 years, beyond apocryphal acronyms for "Pretty Hips and Thighs," to african-american communities struggling during the Great Depression. Most likely, it began as a deliberate misspealling of "fat" -- a state that was, at the time, a good thing; it meant you had enough to eat -- and remained as the Bochean culture slowly faded. Along with cool, it's risen above the whirling maelstorm of everchanging street slang into a more permanent upper echelon.
Has killer app done the same? Probably not, but it's neccesary if you want to read the business section.