Verbal Hygiene: How People Can Change The Way We Talk

Stop trying to make fetch happen, it’s not going to happen. Or could it?
Verbal Hygiene

‘Tis the season for spring cleaning! Or summer, winter or autumn cleaning, depending on when you read this. Now’s the perfect time to clean out your house, your mind and your language. “What? How do I clean my language?” you may ask. Well, it’s not as hard as you may think, because it all comes down to one concept: verbal hygiene.

The phrase “verbal hygiene” comes from a 1995 book of that name by linguist Deborah Cameron. The phrase is not particularly attractive, sadly, sounding more like something you’d go to the dentist for than a major linguistic concept. On the most fundamental level, verbal hygiene describes any intentional attempts to change language. Or, to use Cameron’s words, it’s the “discourses and practices through which people attempt to ‘clean up’ language and make its structure or its use conform more closely to their ideals of beauty, truth, efficiency, logic, correctness and civility.” Language can be changed by governments enforcing their will, newspapers using different terminology, large groups of people deciding to stop using certain words or any number of other causes.

On the most fundamental level, verbal hygiene describes any intentional attempts to change language.

Verbal hygiene is pretty common, though it’s not the primary way language changes. Left to its own devices, language evolves completely randomly. Random features of languages are picked up and dropped indiscriminately by speakers. Language is not improving or simplifying over time, it’s just changing with the people who speak it. Verbal hygiene refers to any occasion when humans intervene in this evolution.

Isn’t Verbal Hygiene Just Prescriptivism?

Prescriptivism is the idea that language needs to be taught with a series of very strict rules. A prescriptivist is the kind of person who will get very upset if you use “who” instead of “whom.” So yes, prescriptivism is a kind of verbal hygiene. But in Cameron’s view, “prescriptivism” is a more narrow term than “verbal hygiene.” Prescriptivism only refers to people trying to make language more adhere to certain grammatical principles created a century ago, whereas verbal hygiene can refer to any number of different things.

This is a good time to point out that verbal hygiene is not always inherently “good” or “bad.” People have used it both to enforce fascist ideologies and to promote understanding between disparate groups.

What Are Some More Examples?

There are endless examples of verbal hygiene that we could give here, but we’ll select a few from across the spectrum.

  • Changing Terminology: The change from “fireman” to “firefighter,” along with the slow eradication of related terms like “chairman,” “policeman” and “spokesman,” has marked the success of gender-neutral terms in mainstream conversation. France is having a similar debate about making the language more gender neutral, but with less success. The language rules of French are written by the Académie française, and while the academy can change the rules, grassroots movements have less sway over the language.
  • Changing The Language Spoken: Esperanto is a language that was created to make communication between people easier. The creator of the language encouraged everyone to learn it as a second language so that anyone from anywhere can communicate without having to sacrifice their mother tongue.
  • Changing Word Meaning: The word “queer” has gone through a number of permutations in meaning over the years. It was originally a slur, but then it was reclaimed by punks in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and then it became a slur again, but now it’s kind of in a weird limbo. People disagree on what group of people “queer” refers to, whether it’s positive or negative, and how it fits into LGBTQ+ identity.
  • Enforcing Ideology: In a lecture, Cameron went to the darkest iteration of verbal hygiene: the Nazis. Because Nazism was a nationalist movement, the government enforced the idea that the German language was “better” than any other language. If you were speaking another language, you were seen as lowering yourself.
  • Failing To Change: In the movie Mean Girls, there’s a scene where one character, Gretchen, uses the phrase “That’s so fetch” to try to make it catch on. Then comes the famous response from Regina George: “Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen.” As this example makes clear, not all attempts at verbal hygiene are successful. You can’t change language unless other people are willing to adopt the change, too.

Is Verbal Hygiene The Same As Political Correctness?

Political correctness, for a variety of reasons, is a very charged term. But yes, technically, political correctness falls under the umbrella of verbal hygiene. Telling people to stop using derogatory terms to refer to large groups of people, for example, is an attempt to change the language people speak. The phrase “political correctness” itself could use some verbal hygiene.

Language does not exist separately from what it describes. Cameron writes in Verbal Hygiene that “complaints about language changes are usually symbolic expressions of anxieties about larger social changes.” This can refer to a number of different ideas — people alarmed about slang “destroying” the language comes to mind — but is especially apt in describing the backlash to political correctness. People who exclaim “Freedom of speech!” when they’re yelled at for using a racial slur are kind of missing the point of verbal hygiene. It’s not the words that are used that people get mad about, but the sentiment behind them.

Does Changing The Language Matter?

To phrase this question another way: Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Verbal hygiene is sometimes merely a surface change. Calling something by a different name doesn’t change what that thing is, nor does it necessarily change our attitudes toward something. But if roses were called “stink weeds,” you might be less compelled to get them for your spouse.

The language that we use to describe objects and ideas matters. It’s hard to say the extent to which it matters, however, and language is certainly not the only factor involved in societal change. Still, it’s useful to think about the language we use every day.

To demonstrate why, take a term that has so far not created too much furor on the internet: “guys.” For the most part, people are comfortable using “guys” for groups that include both men and women, though it traditionally refers to just men. Its counterpart, “gals,” first appeared at about the same time as “guys,” yet is far less used. Also, no one would ever use “gals” to refer to a group of men and women, as it might be seen as an emasculating insult.

This is not to say you absolutely must change how you use “guys,” but it raises a number of questions. Does using “guys” as a catch-all for men and women tend to erase the presence of women in a group? Why do male-based terms always take prevalence over female-based in the English language? Why is it generally accepted to call a woman “guy” but not a man “gal?”

And if you do decide to stop saying “guys,” you’re not going to end the patriarchy. But by practicing verbal hygiene, and just thinking about how language changes and how it might affect groups of people, you can learn a lot about the relationship between language and reality.

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