Harry Gardiner

The Evolution Of Language And What It Means For Content Marketing

17th Sep 2013 Content Marketing Blog 9 minutes to read

Words on Board“Squee! LOL! OMG! Totes Amazeballs!”

Believe it or not, all of the above words can now be found in the dictionary (although amazeballs is still confined to Collins Online Dictionary, the forward-thinker’s favourite).

Keep that in mind, as I attempt to charter the unruly landscape of modern vocabulary and chronicle the decimation evolution of the English language, evaluating what it means for the online marketing community.

Do these new ways in which people speak to each other offer marketer exciting new opportunities with which to engage their audience? Or are they just a bane upon an already adept language? Let’s take a look at some of the more recent changes and find out.

An All New Vocabulary

The process of adding words to the dictionary is nothing new; but it’s not the fact that new words have been added that’s getting everyone so riled up, it’s the manner of these words.

Whereas some additions offer purposeful, worthwhile words that will benefit the language as a whole, some of the most notable new words recently added to the Oxford Dictionary Online include the following:

Apols: “An informal apology”

Bitcoin: “A digital currency in which transactions can be performed without the need for a central bank”

Derp: “Used as a substitute for speech regarded as meaningless or stupid, or to comment on a foolish or stupid action”

Phablet: “A smartphone with a screen which is intermediate in size between that of a typical smartphone and a tablet computer”

Selfie: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone”

Squee: “Used to express great delight or excitement”

Srsly: “Short for seriously”

TL;DR: “Abbreviation of ‘too long; don’t read’. Used as a dismissive response to a lengthy online post.”

Twerk: “To dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance”

(All definitions courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries)

This is just a small selection that’s been added to online dictionaries. It’s estimated that there are approximately 1,020,000 words in the English language, and that number is growing year on year. Just imagine trying to find and fully define all of those!

Abbreviation Aggravation

KeyboardAs you’ll notice, within that list, there are a lot of words which are just abbreviations of their former selves. What begun as a time saving habit used when texting friends has spilled out into everyday life.

We all do it, both online and off. I myself am guilty of saying “gonna” instead of “going to”; or throwing in the occasional ‘ftw’ (for the win), with plenty of exclamation marks of course, after typing a really passionate sentence.

It’s worth noting that this ridiculous habit of pointlessly abbreviating words has apparently been around for hundreds of years, with Queen Victoria even adopting informal, text message-like language in her letters to royal correspondents. This includes the use of ‘shd’ instead of ‘should’ and ‘wh’ instead of the full ‘when’.

I’m sure that shortening these words served a purpose, and saved her plenty of valuable time. Sure it did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not adverse to change. In fact I’m a serious campaigner to have phrases such as ‘a lot’, and ‘as well’ to be shortened into one word. I just feel that there’s a time and a place to use text-like abbreviations, and brands need to consider this.

Whilst abbreviations and slang like speech might work well with certain business to consumer communications, it’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a B2B content, or in a company’s website copy.

Colloquial Controversy

Some of the major dictionary-related controversy came from the addition of random words such as Twerk; a type of dance made popular by a certain ex-Disney star whose name will not be mentioned here.

Dances go in and out of fashion like crazy, just look at the Macerana, the Dougie, the Running Man, Gangnam Style, the Harlem Shake, and many many more. Is Twerking so much of a social phenomenon that we feel we have to officially introduce the term into our language? I personally think not, but then again, who am I to comment, I can’t even do it properly.

Many may fear that there are almost too many pointless words being added to the dictionary; you could say it’s become an absolute omnishambles (noun – a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations).

Of course this whole situation has been blown far out of proportion, with people ranting that this is the beginning of the end, that this process will never end and that standard dictionaries will warp into tragically abbreviated shadows of their former literary selves.

The truth is language has to evolve, if it didn’t we’d all still be putting the ‘e’ after old and prancing around using words like ‘verily’ and ‘jargogle’… wait that actually sounds pretty fun.

New Definitions

Another unpopular change that made the headlines recently was the news that the word literally would be given an added definition by several dictionaries, and from henceforth can be used to describe something figuratively. Yes, literally now means figuratively.

Literally DefinitionSource: Google.com

It’s no longer considered risqué (or incredibly annoying, depending on who you ask) to use literally as a form of hyperbole, because it now has the desired meaning.

So many people have misused the term that the long-suffering language researchers (or ‘Keepers of speech’ as I like to call them) who work for the dictionaries have been practically forced to change the meaning of the word. It was a matter of moving with the times.

You watch; they’ll be coming for ‘irony’ next.

People are acting like this is the first time anything like this has happened, but as a little bit of research will tell you, there are plenty of commonly used words which have completely changed their meaning. ‘Guess’ used to mean to take aim with a weapon for example, and ‘Bimbo’ once meant a laddish man.

Hundreds of words have changed their definitions over time; it’s all part of the natural progression and evolution of the English language. Old words and definitions have to be phased out to make room for our new vocabulary.

Sadly, these new words include choice selections such as “amazeballs”.

Visual Revolution

Content marketers have to consider the way they communicate with their audience, as well as the audience they’re are communicating with. There’s no point in talking to people in a manner they don’t understand or respect.

You wouldn’t attend a high-class black tie party in jogging bottoms and a tank top would you? The exact same principles apply for content. Know exactly who it is you’re creating content for, and adapt the tone of your content to fit your audience.

This adaption in tone can be seen across the web, business sites utilise formal copy and adhere to the proper grammatical rules whilst brands on social networks and blogs tend to act more informal (much like their followers).

Of course then there are those which neglect the text completely and just post pictures.

Many content creators have (for better or worse) begun pandering to the masses; it is, after all, what the people want, and it’s proven to be successful time and time again. Sites like BuzzFeed spoon-feed the public the most basic forms of visual content, and people lap it up. Consuming, sharing, tweeting and liking as much of it as possible.

More and more brands are investing in creating visually stimulating content. Approximately 40% of people will respond better to visual content than plain text, and this makes perfect sense. In a world where information moves instantly across the web, visual content is much easier to digest. After all, 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against BuzzFeed (it’s brilliant), and I definitely have nothing against using images in your content (I even wrote a post on why you should be doing it). I just feel that many brands are using images as a way of excusing themselves from creating actually worthwhile written content, instead of combining the two to create something brilliant. But I suppose if it’s what people want, then it’s what people want.

What Can You Do?

If the key to success is embracing new media and terms, then how can you stay ahead of the trends and keep you content as fresh as a possible?

You should start by setting up Google Trends to monitor the latest popular topics, and setting up alerts to see when anyone mentions your brand. These are great resources that are freely available; you have no excuse not to use them.

Of course for a more hands-on approach you could always spend a day on Reddit, sifting through the World Wide Web’s so-called front page for nuggets of content gold.

A more viable option would be to listen to your audience. Monitor your social feeds to see what your followers are talking about; hold meetings with advocates of your brand and conduct market research to find out what people actually want to see from your brand. Develop humanised profiles online that allow you to talk directly with your fans.

Don’t just go abbreviating random words like a dad trying to appear ‘hip’ to his teenage daughter; listen to what your fans are saying, because after all they are the true voice of your brand.

There are valid arguments for and against embracing this new language and utilising it in content. In the end I think it all comes down to context; you need to know your audience before you even begin trying to talk to them.

But saying that the English Language is well and truly ruined because of the addition of few choice words? That’s ridiculous. Language is constantly evolving and adapting to new cultures. Keep that in mind, as it’s likely that much of the vocabulary we utilise now will be considered obscure in a few hundred years, if not sooner.

Things To Consider

It’s less about the fact that our language is changing, and more about exactly who is implementing those changes. The way words get added to dictionaries is actually an incredibly interesting process, and well worth reading if you have the time.

With celebrities and popular cultural figures having so much influence over the way we communicate, should the responsibility to uphold certain standards of language fall on their shoulders?

Celebrities are, after all, modern role models for the adoring masses; and with social media allowing them to interact with their fans like never before, should they be more careful about the language they use? Maybe celebrities can’t be trusted to do this, but popular brands certainly should be. With great power, comes great responsibility.

But that’s not even the real issue here, honestly the thing I’m worried most about is when on earth will Microsoft Office begin to recognise all these new words?

Let me know what you think about the new additions and altered definitions in the comments section below. If thou disagree with anything I’ve said, or are curious about some of the terms I’ve used, feel free to beseech meaning, and I shall happily indulge you. Totes. 

TL;DR: The English language is dead, long live the English language.

Image Credits

Abbreviation Chalkboard via BigStock
Abbreviation Keyboard via BigStock

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