The Great Semantic Shift

Originally written for International Gaslighting Festival, I decided this thing was better than that, and so here you have it.

The Great Semantic Shift

This is a story about the English language, and an account of one of the most extensive upheavals in English semantics over the last 1,000 years. Before I go into it, however, I must inform you of the peculiar etymology of a not uncommon word, and I must also make you familiar with the linguistic term that is Great Shifts. I shall also regale you with druids! If you will just bear with me for a moment, I promise all the tangents will be worth it.

It begins in Ancient Greece, where the word σαρκασμός originated, from the root of σάρξ – flesh. Literally, σαρκασμός meant the rending of flesh from bone. In English today it is called sarcasm, an advanced form of mockery that requires the listener to understand several levels of language use at once, not unlike puns. It is often one of the first things to go in dementia, the ability to know both the meaning of the words said and the intended meaning that lies underneath them. Speakers of English as a second language can have trouble identifying sarcasm even if they are perfectly good at it in their mother tongue. This is mentioned to instill the idea that the understanding of sarcasm is fickle at best.

(If we are curious, we can find other words related to σάρξ in modern day English, such as sarcophagus – ancient Egyptian coffins, literally ‘flesh-eater’, and sarcumic – ‘who fucks flesh’, a Puritan insult.) Read the rest of this entry »