Tramps, Jerks, and the Evolution of Meaning


abt cst

So, I watch a lot of black and white TV shows and Movies. Probably because it’s familiar since I grew up watching it, but I’ve been watching A LOT since I’ve been back home in Texas this year.  I was obsessed with musicals like My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain and black and white comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace, old suspenseful mysteries such as Hitchcock films, anything with either of the Hepburns, Doris Day or Jimmy Stewart. As for TV shows, it was anything from Lucille Ball, and Andy Griffith to Mork and Mindy to 70’s, 80’s and of course 90’s sitcoms. As I’ve gone down this black and white rabbit hole, I’ve been noticing some interesting things about the evolution of our language.

For example, the word “Jerk” doesn’t mean at all what it meant back then (60’s – 80’s). Jerk has gone from meaning a fool or someone easily tricked aka gullible to a bully. Those two things seem polar opposite to me. The former is the victim where as the evolved meaning has somehow morphed into a mean spirited tormentor. Both meanings are listed in Merriam Webster as:  “a.  an annoyingly stupid or foolish person acting like a jerk. B. an unlikable person; especially :  one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded a selfish jerk.”  I don’t know anyone my age who uses the first meaning in reference to someone unintelligent. Maybe I should take a poll? I also never hear anyone in the old films/ tv show using the word in reference to a bully.

Then there’s the word “Tramp.” How did we go from a fun-loving, romantic Disney mutt to term for promiscuous girls? When you look it up, Webster doesn’t even list the later. It only gives the definition of tramp as “a. to walk, tread, or step especially heavily tramped loudly on the stairs b.  to travel about on foot, hike or to journey as a tramp.”  That seems like quite a change from the spaghetti-slurping, homeless pup in Lady and the Tramp. I wonder how we got there.

Were the newer meanings coined by the younger generations who didn’t understand the original definition? They’re always doing that, those crazy kids.  I know we did when I was in highschool 90 years ago. I’ve been working with some highschoolers lately and I’m astounded by how they use certain words, and how they never get TIRED of using these words over and over and over again. No wonder these words morph…they use them so much it’s like when you repeat the same word like, 20 times in a row and like, it starts to sound, like not even a real word anymore. It’s like, the weirdest, ya know? If I hear one more high schooler say “what a queen,” I can’t be held responsible for my actions. Well…unless they’re referring to me. If that’s the case, I will probably give them a HUGE hug and promptly tell them, “that’s sweet but I’m not ACTUALLY royalty” (bwahaha).  It’s the same with “I can’t. I just …can’t.” And “She’s so extra.” …You know how it goes.

Of course, I’m guilty of it too. We all are. Most of us don’t even think about our language, we’re just living our lives the best way we know how. But, we all have different experiences and everyone’s knowledge is limited in some way which is pretty dang conducive to some confusing interactions.

Either way, it makes me think about the beauty of individualism and how we all interpret words differently. Whether it’s because we aren’t familiar with the word and use context clues to draw a conclusion that might be a little off, or certain information is simply left out of a conversation, miscommunication is what makes life interesting. Right? After all, it IS the key component to any great sitcom as far as I’m concerned.

As the viewer, you’re clued into the intentions or goal of the protagonist so you know what he’s TRYING to communicate. When he fails to communicate all the information to the other person or maybe doesn’t use his words wisely, the other person draws a conclusion that is off base and thus the drama ensues. [Enter Abbot and Costello]. You have to keep watching to see how it will resolve – or I do at least. I have to see how the wardrobe malfunction, misplaced baby or couple’s fight will eventually force the two to realize their mistake in communication and attempt to resolve that most unfortunate misunderstanding.

It’s also easy to mistake other’s words over text, email, etc. without the facial expressions, gestures or body language or even intonation of voice to guide the meaning. Hell…I even manage to misconstrue other’s words when I’ve got all those factors in front of me. The only thing getting in the way is my warped mind. It twists and shapes conversations into something they’re not. A simple correction from a coworker can quickly plummet into a dark twisted vortex of a pity party. But I’m working on this…as with most things in my life right now. I’m thankful for the miscomunications that force me to pause and self-examine my own motives and intentions. They force me to separate myself from others and not lean so heavily on their opinion of me. 

Not only am I learning to separate myself from people’s words about me and to consider the way I interpret their words more carefully, I’m also learning be more aware of my own “self-talk,” as they call it in the therapy world. Self-talk is simply, you guessed it, the way we talk to ourselves. That internal chatter and internal critic that’s constantly hounding us. I’m learning to call it out, tell it to shut up and to give myself grace simply because I’m human. Failure may be inevitable even in the smallest tasks, but it doesn’t have to define me. 



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