I find language fascinating, and I think the reason is that there are so many levels it is interesting on. On the one hand I can't resist a good pun, fish joke or spoonerism, and on the other I've spent many a happy hour reconstructing grammatical trees of obscure sentences. The differences between languages, the similarities, the way we learn them, the way they evolve, to me they're all rabbit-holes of intrigue and rich anecdotal pickings. Hands up who hasn't turned to describing quirky language differences as an ice-breaker around the dinner table at a European conference? I think the most fascinating thing about language though, is when it manages to affect our actual behaviour, or possibly the way we think.
New words, and shifting meanings for existing words, are two phenomena which keep language fluid, moving forward along with everything else, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others. I remember in the nineties how the word ‘sad' gained an additional meaning, becoming a derogatory term used to describe anyone who wasn't keeping up with the trends of the time. It was pretty much an antonym of cool (my dictionary states: "pathetically inadequate or unfashionable"). In the last few years though, there's been a redux of its original meaning ("feeling or showing sorrow; unhappy"), but with a subtle twist: it's no longer necessarily negative.
The word ‘sad' is now used in sentences such as:
"I've spilt my coffee, sad times."
and exchanges such as:
"You've got a bit of chocolate on your cheek." "Oh, that's sad."
In these examples, the term ‘sad' is still being used to show empathy, but with added comic effect: the situations described aren't bad enough to really warrant the emotion of sadness, and so the use of the word ends up actually lightening the tone.
This use has been around a while now, and it seems to have resulted in it becoming a meaning in its own right. 'Sad' now has a third definition, "a faux-unhappy situation". This new meaning means the word may used to lighten the tone of an exchange describing a genuinely unhappy event, and bring with it a positive adjunct:
"I just failed my driving test for second time; sad times."
It's quite normal to be genuinely unhappy in this situation (I should know), but the use of ‘sad' in this case indicates that the utterer, whilst knowing they have genuine cause of unhappiness, has accepted the situation and can see it from an objective place.
This new use has further implications, though. In the above example the utterer uses the word to poke fun at their own situation. When used by the listener as a reply to someone who seems genuinely unhappy at their situation, they might attempt to indicate to the speaker that they believe the situation isn't as bad as they perhaps think:
"I've got wine all down me, this shirt's ruined!" "That's so sad."
The new meaning, however, affects how and when the word can now be used. There are now circumstances where the word is no longer appropriate, since the meaning may be ambiguous. You may try and condole someone regarding a genuinely unhappy experience, and only add to their woe by coming across as flippant:
"You didn't get the job? Sad times..."
See, in this case it would be going a bit too far. The problem is that the shift of use doesn't happen to all parts of society at the same time, so there will be a period where different groups, be it by social class, age, or whatever, may be using the word differently at a single point in time.
I really like this subtle positive shift though. Of course, eventually the new meaning may become the norm and another word move in to replace the old meaning. In the meantime though, we might just find ourselves lightening up a bit. I think that the language we use has the potential to alter the way we think, and so a change to language we use every day may alter the way we think every day. Especially in England, where we have the tendency to err on the negative, I welcome any subtle shift towards the positive. Good times.