Usage And Abusage – Part One : Proactive (The Word, Not The Cholesterol Reducing Margarine)
As words spread out through The Great Unwashed, they have an annoying habit of changing meaning. Perhaps the most dramatic mutation of meaning in recent times is the in the usage of the word “Gay”.
Up until fairly recently, the word Gay meant “Homosexual”. Though for the first half of the Twentieth Century, the word Gay meant “lighthearted and carefree” or “colourful and a bit flash or showy”. Back then, there were still an alarming number of young Southern gentlemen who were proud to have been christened “Gaylord”. But for most of the final part of the Twentieth Century, Gay meant homosexual.
When I was a school kid, back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, any fellow pupil with the given name “Gaylord” would have been beaten to death pretty much the minute he set foot in the school yard. It was not an enlightened time.
We’re in a new century now though. A new millennium in fact. The word “Gay” does not mean homosexual to a new generation of kids. To them, it means “rubbish, uncool or sub-standard.” Quite a drastic change in meaning, but one that sadly would not change the outcome for any boy called Gaylord who happened to be foolish enough to walk through the school gates and actually tell anyone his real name.
I’m not saying there wasn’t an element of homophobia involved in the evolution of the meaning of the word “Gay” from “Homosexual” to “a bit crap”. There almost certainly was. But once the engine of common usage has started up and a word begins to alter its meaning, there’s no stopping it. Even the Gay Times has tasted the tang of change in the air and now just calls itself “GT”. Like GQ but, ironically, not as obsessed with clothes and personal grooming.
I think they should do a series of special publications four times a year and call them “Queer Quarterly” to keep on flying the flag. Because if you give it ten years “What does GT stand for” will be a pub quiz question in the same ball park as “What does the HP in HP Sauce stand for”. (The standard answer is “Houses of Parliament” because there’s a picture of the Houses of Parliament on the bottle, but the truth is it doesn’t stand for anything).
Annoying as the change of the meaning of the word “Gay” is, for me personally it is not the most annoying change of meaning in a word. For me, the prize for that goes to “Proactive”.
The word “Proactive” was actually coined in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until Stephen R Covey published “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People” in the 1989 that it came into common business parlance. Where it was immediately misused by people who hadn’t actually read the book properly, if indeed at all.
I work in the field of management, so I hear the word “Proactive” a lot. When I hear it, it is always used to mean “ anticipating problems and dealing with them before they get out of hand”. This is a fine principle, but it does not require the word “Proactive” to describe it. There is already a perfectly serviceable English word for it, and that is “Pre-emptive”.
“Proactive” actually means “creating or controlling a situation rather than just responding to it”. Shame you can’t do that with the meanings of words. The word “Nice” was originally a cabinet making word that meant “precisely put together”. As in “that’s a nice cabinet”. Some words changed from having “an” in front of them to having “a” in front of them. “An apron” was originally “ a napron.” An orange was originally “a norange”. And, if you’ve read your Shakespeare, you’ll know that “an uncle” was originally “ a nuncle”. Words change their meanings and there is fuck all you can do about it. So just relax and enjoy the linguistic ride.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2013