You are going to read an article written by Shelly Branch, staff reporter of The Wall Street Journal. For each question, choose the answer(s) which you think fits best according to the text.

As chief of staff to a California assemblyman, Bob Hartnagel chooses his words carefully—especially when his boss is around. But once the coast is clear, he can’t resist tossing off a playful “Shut up!” to his colleagues. “It’s kind of an exclamation point to whatever’s going on,” says Mr. Hartnagel, 32 years old. “If it’s met with a smile, you proceed. If there’s a gasp… you refrain.”

Not too many years ago, the unrude use of “Shut up!” might have baffled linguists and just about everybody else. But the term has now made its way from schoolgirl chatter to adult repartee and into movies and advertising. People use it as much to express disbelief, shock and joy as to demand silence. In some circles, it has become the preferred way to say “Oh my God!” “Get out of town!” and “No way!” all at once.

A recent ad for Hyundai’s Elantra shows a young woman sparring with a dealer. “Shut up!” screams the woman, who pokes the man in the chest each time he points out a feature that sounds too good to be true.

Editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary are considering a new entry for “Shut up!” in the next edition. “I think we should add it because it appears to be widespread,” says senior editor Erin McKean. Already, she has mulled possible definitions: “used to express amazement or disbelief” and “oh, so true!”

Shut up! is the latest example of a linguistic phenomenon called amelioration, whereby a word or phrase loses its negative associations over time. A classic example is “nice,” which meant “stupid” up through the 13th century. Recent flip-flops include “bad” (as in good) and “dope” (as in great). “Words that were once considered rude are now included in regular conversation, but in a context that lets you know it’s not impolite,” says Connie Eble, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Slang and Sociability.” “They become so generalised that the shock value wears off.”

Words with rich semantic connotations “typically have the possibility to mean their opposite when used in an ironic or joking context,” adds Bert Vaux, an associate professor of linguistics at Harvard University.

In the case of the Elantra ad, copy writers at the Richards Group in Dallas settled on the line while cramming last Memorial Day weekend for snappy, youthful expressions. At first, they considered having the actress say something like, “no way,” or “you’re kidding,” but were inspired by the irreverent lingo that staff people in their twenties had been shouting across the agency’s open-office cubicles.

“There’s a very fine line between being funny and obnoxious,” says creative director Mike Malone, who was nervous about offending Hyundai’s older dealers. “But every time we said ‘Shut up!’ it just sounded funnier.” He knew he had a hit on his hands, he says, when the agency showed the TV spot to a group of Hyundai dealers in their fifties and they burst out laughing. “After the meeting, they were all walking around telling each other to shut up,” says Mr. Malone.

To assure the proper tone for their ad, writers for the Hyundai spot auditioned more than 200 actresses. “We were getting a really annoying read,” says writer Kevin Paetzel, who wanted the character to have a more endearing quality. “The trick is to hit the ‘sh’ very hard.”

The most effective enunciation also places a full stop between “shut” and “up.” Excitable types pitch their voices higher on the word “up.” (Mr. Hartnagel adds “right now!” when he’s feeling acutely peppy.) Spoken in haste, the phrase loses what linguists call its “rhythmic features.” Then, it can sound too much like an affront.

Once considered base, “shut up” has a long, distinguished history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an early documented use, in 16th-century England, was a figurative one, meaning “to withhold one’s money or kindness from a person.” In 1840, the New Orleans Picayune printed the first known slang/imperative use of “shut up,” when a reporter referred to an officer’s demand for a Dutchman to be quiet.

More recently, children’s author Meg Cabot has given the phrase a literary twist. Her title character in “The Princess Diaries” favours it to express geeky teenage delight. Disney screenwriters were so fond of the princess’s breezy use of the term that they wove it prominently into the movie adaptation. “Shut up!” even landed in the promotional trailer for the film. “I’ve had a lot of letters from parents thanking me sarcastically for introducing ‘shut up!’ to their kids’ vocabulary,” says Ms. Cabot.

The origins of the newest usage have fueled some debate. Ms. Cabot says she picked it up a few years ago from schoolgirls on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. An earlier adopter of the phrase was the character Elaine on “Seinfeld.” In a 1992 episode written by Larry David called “The Pez Dispenser,” Jerry tells a story about a man who splashed Gatorade on his head, got pneumonia and dropped dead. Elaine responds: “Shut up!” In subsequent episodes, Elaine tells people to “Shut up!” all the time—but she really means it. Writers had her intone the hip version just twice, according to Paul McFedries, a language writer and founder of the online site “The Word Spy” who has studied the complete body of Seinfeld scripts.

The fact that “Shut up!” seems to resonate particularly with women doesn’t surprise word whizzes. “Women tend to use more conversational movers than men,” says dictionary editor Ms. McKean, who also edits “Verbatim,” a language quarterly. “These are little phrases that help keep the dialogue going.”

Though some people don’t like the phrase (“I think it just sounds rude,” says actress Drew Barrymore), plenty of professional types are hooked. Says Dawn Jackson, a 32-year-old communications manager in San Francisco, “There are just times when nothing else can express the level of shock, surprise, you name it, that you’re feeling.”



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