CalWord: the Calvin Theory of Word Use

🐇 🐇 🐇 (the commencement of September) The Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 9/1/92, reprised in my comics feed on 8/30:


(#1) We can achieve intergenerational incommunicability! Yes we can!

Calvin articulates a view of word use, call it CalWord, which comes in two parts:

Endless lability. Any word can be used to convey any meaning. In the CalWord view, a word is merely substance — pronunciation or spelling — that can be put to any use.  So words are the stem cells of the linguistic world. From NOAD:

compound noun stem cellBiology an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism which is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.

Social fencing. Socially distributed variants can serve as social fences, separating the Ins from the Outs and impeding the Outs’ ability to comprehend and communicate with the Ins — impeding, for example, one generation’s ability to comprehend or communicate with the generations after it. The fencing effect is very noticeable for lexical variants — different bits of substance for the same use (soda vs. pop, say); or, especially relevant here, different uses for the same substance (gay ‘lighthearted, carefree’ vs. ‘homosexual’ vs. ‘foolish, stupid, unimpressive’, say).

Things that Calvin doesn’t (seem to) know about

On  the lability front. The background story here is the one in Genesis 2:20 (KJV):

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field …

The picture is of someone explicitly, self-consciously, choosing names for the things in their world — in Adam’s case, apparently picking names out of the air. In real life, such explicit naming does happen  (I am, after all, by profession something of a terminology-wrangler), but most naming happens implicitly, unreflectively, in the course of talking and writing. And very little naming, whether explicit or tacit, is the invention of totally fresh substance: almost all naming is either re-naming, taking existing bits of substance and using them in new ways (using, say, the name of the canned meat product Spam to refer to irrelevant or inappropriate net messages); or employing productive schemes for deriving new bits of substance from existing ones, via derivational morphology, compounding, and other processes (creating, say, marvy, fab, or far out).

Let’s focus on using existing bits of substance in new ways, which is what Calvin is mostly on about in the comic strip. Here Calvin seems to think that we can just decide to use some existing bit of substance in a new way. He is one with Humpty Dumpty, in this exchange with Alice:

[Humpty Dumpty:] There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

‘Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”, Alice objected.

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things – that’s all.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all’

Now, in real life, word uses do change — usually not by fiat, like this, but, more important, not by giant leaps, not without some connection to existing uses: the changes are almost always incremental, along an assortment of paths that have long been studied: semantic extension, specialization, metaphor (turning on similarity in referents), and several types of metonymy (turning on association between referents). Whatever the details, and however much work it might take a linguist or lexicographer to appreciate the path of change in specific cases, it’s almost always the case that you have to be able to get there from here.

This isn’t an especially profound observation, but follows partly  from the way real people discover how to use words — from the evidence of what other people say, in context, without any knowledge of what other people have in their heads, also without a panoptic view of usage (but only the sampling of their own experience). And also partly from speakers’ desires to find a good word for their referents and (mostly unconsciously, in real time) stretching their existing vocabulary to satisfy that desire. (I hit on the metaphorical social fencing above in just this fashion, in the heat of writing.)

On the social fencing front. From my 6/30/15 posting “That goes without”, on NYT critic Amanda Hess about ICE (I Can’t Even) truncations in gay YouTuber and activist Tyler Oakley’s reaction to photos of a sweaty, near-naked Glee actor Darren Criss: “I literally cannot even,” he informed his fans. “I can’t even. I am unable to even. I have lost my ability to even. I am so unable to even. Oh, my God. Oh, my God!”:


(#2) Criss, displaying his abs and inguinal crease and inciting Oakley’s ICE capade; I post it here just to keep everybody paying attention as I launch into a brief sociolinguistic moment

Purposes of slang. Hess goes on to observe, correctly, that the audience for Tyler Oakley and the people she quotes is not adults, but other teenagers:

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

(More generally: all talk has an intended audience, and though you might experience some of the talk, you’re not necessarily in that intended audience. This goes not only for teen talk, but also for business jargon, technical talk, and many other kinds of talk specific to certain contexts and purposes.)

But saying that is not saying that the purpose of youth slang is concealment from adult scrutiny. It’s quite likely that teens using “I can’t even” [the ICE slang construction] are giving no thought to adults at all; their use of slang is affiliative, designed to create and reinforce social bonds, and the exclusion of people outside the targeted social groups is a side effect. (Some uses of slang are also ostentatious: people showing off their creativity.)

Now there are people who do indeed use slang to conceal — for instance, the criminals, con men, drug addicts, prostitutes, and others in the marginal subcultures studied by David W. Maurer in his work (which Hess mentions). But these uses shouldn’t be seen as the model for the much larger world of slang.

So: both parts of the CalWord view founder on the way the world works. But then Calvin is only 6 (and has been since 1985); though he’s headstrong and subject to wild enthusiasms, he’s clever and sometimes capable of learning from his stuffed tiger Hobbes. He could learn.

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