In a fascinating episode of their informative whiteboard series for Mental Floss, linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill verbally and visually explain the origins and evolution of the word “gross”, particularly noting that while its meaning has remained essentially the same, the context in which it is used has changed.
Gross did not undergo a big change in meaning, but it did undergo a big change in context. In the late 20th century, young people started to use it a lot–like, a lot-a lot. So much so that old people noticed it, and didn’t like it. Gross became slang. …By the ’80s it was a staple of valley girl speak, so often repeated, mocked, emulated, and imitated that it spread far beyond the teen world it came from. Its sense narrowed into a succinct judgment of visceral disgust.
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