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Examining the fluidity of today’s language means I’ll never look at Pikachu the same

In her monthly All About Eve column, Eve Tawfick looks at the fluidity of today’s language.

Six people in their early twenties are sitting in a messy student flat, passing around a joint. Most of them are wearing oversized band T-shirts, and someone is ripping up a copy of Ulysses to make a roach. The air is thick with pungent smoke, a pizza box is passed around the circle, and the room goes silent aside from the sounds of feverish chewing.

Soon the conversion turns.

Eve Tawfick
Eve Tawfick

"What exactly is Pikachu?" One asks.

"A kind of rat. Or a squirrel?" Another answers.

"No guys," someone slurs, "It's a thunder mouse."

The room erupts with laughter. Someone half chokes on their pizza slice. For weeks to come, the "thunder mouse" is a source of great amusement.

However, what exactly is Pikachu? Where do the words come from? A quick Google search with show that "pika" is the Japanese term for "gleaming" or "sparkling" and "-chu" is the sounds a mouse makes. So the direct translation for the electric type Pokémon is "gleaming-mouse".

A rather morbid, if not pertinent connection to the morphemes of the pop culture icon’s name takes us back over 70 years. Everyone in Japan was using the term "pika", but not in reference to the red-cheeked cartoon character created by Ken Sugimori in the 90's.

After the tragic bombing on Hiroshima on August 6 1945, before residents of the militarised city knew of the atomic bomb they spoke of a "flashing light" seen prior to the devastation. This became known as ‘pikadon’, and then later shorted to just Pika. It seems strange, as we look at the vastly divergent usage of the words - once used to describe an event that saw scores of dead bodies floating down the Motayasu River. Now, ‘pika, pika’ describes the sweet, globally recognised trill of a fictional manga character.

The evolution and fluidity of language has seen many words morph and change meaning.

In the early 2000's the word "gay" was synonymous with "lame" and was used by teens to describe a salad lunch or a childish backpack. Prior to that, it meant "happy" and references can be found in Victorian texts. Now the word simply describes a homosexual, rending previous usage obsolete.

Now, UK MPs have announced the redefinition of the word "extremism". Once reserved for the ISIS campaign of terror, or groups that held inhumane and unhinged views on society will now apply to:

"The promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or undermine, overturn or replace the UK's system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)."

Civil liberties advocates, community groups and MPs have criticised recent government rhetoric on extremism. The opaque definition, while seemingly in place as a form of public protection, could lead to the application of a broad spectrum of behaviours deemed ‘threatening’ and has the potential to make any UK citizen a target if expanded further.

Social media is partly to blame, as our use of language can be pulled apart and criticised, leaving behind a convenient digital trail for reference. JK Rowling’s use of the word "woman" has led for calls for her cancellation and the label of “transphobic”. On some NHS leaflets the word woman has been replaced by "people with a cervix". The word that once simply described anatomy is now a divisive term.

Not all language modifications are negative. When we examine the use of the ‘N’ word as both and insult and now a brotherly term between black people has been seen as largely positive – with the black community taking an abhorrent racial insult and re-claiming it as their own.

Words have also risen in popularity, bevvy, bitch, tea, drag, send up - some of these have been in circulation since the 80’s on the NYC LGBTQ scene but have been re-popularised with the rise of pro-trans media which has seen phraseology trickle down into popular usage outside of the LGBTQ community. The language itself once had a name- ‘Polari’ and was known as the ‘gay language’.

‘Master Bedroom’, first coined in a 1926 Sears catalogue, was popularly used in colloquial speech until recently – where the connections of the word ‘Master’ were drawn between enslavement and is now deemed offensive. ‘Primary Bedroom’ is now the appropriate phrase.

The word suicide is now being termed amongst the younger generation as the seemingly less harsh "un-alive". We are becoming increasingly afraid of words, some of which now belong to a category called “triggers”.

Now we see the absence of language is also telling. The usage of gender pronouns is now an announcement, not only of one's preferred prefix but also one's acceptance of the changing linguistic landscape. If a profile isn't stamped with this particular badge, it may be surmised you don’t respect the shift.

“Woke”. A word whose meaning is wrestled on between self-proclaimed “leftists” and “right-wingers”. On one hand to mean socially awake and the other to mean tiresome and easily offended.

Let's just say I can't wait to see the 2006 dictionary banned as an offensive text. Nor can I wait to see what Collins will produce in 20 years. Maybe a blank text. I do hope though that the word a**e will forever retain its meaning. So I know what to call those who are censoring my semantic liberty.

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