Dear Word Detective: I don’t know if I’m the last to notice this but the word “trending,” which used to modify other words, e.g., “the stock market is trending down,” “homeownership is trending down,” “property values are trending down” (boy, it’s hard to think of anything that’s trending UP these days), has become a stand-alone word. It seems to mean — approximately — “becoming more popular,” “an emerging trend,” or, on the web, “frequently linked to,” “Liked” in the Facebook sense, or “recommended.” So I’ll be told that a particular shoe designer is “trending,” and I’m supposed to know what that means. I’m not an Edwin Newman curmudgeonly defender of the status quo. I understand that language is what people say, not what the rules say they should say, and language changes and evolves. But a part of me still objects when language changes in a direction that strikes the ear like a wrong note in a piano concerto. Sure, change, but why change in an ugly direction and for no apparent reason? Is there anything that the new sense of “trending” gives us that the old one, or any number of other words, didn’t? — Joseph DeMartino.
That’s a good question. Due to space constraints, I’ve had to lop off your second question, which had to do with an emerging (and depressing) mangling of the venerable word “aback,” but I’ll use that for another column. Hey, I just noticed that my spell-checker doesn’t recognize “Facebook.” I’m gonna leave it that way.
When “trend” first appeared as a verb in Old English (as “trendan”), derived from Germanic roots, it meant simply “to revolve or turn around; to turn or roll oneself about.” By the 16th century, “trend” was being used to mean “to travel around, to skirt something” (e.g., a coast), or “to travel in a specified direction or following a certain course,” as a river, mountain range or other natural feature might (“In its course to the north, the Gulf Stream gradually trends more and more to the eastward,” 1860). By the mid-19th century, based on this use, “trend” was being used figuratively to mean “To turn in some direction, to have a general tendency (as a discussion, events, etc.)” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)). This is the standard, neutral sense of “trend” as a verb today. The noun “trend,” which arose from the verb, followed the same general course (trend?) in evolution, and now means “the general drift or direction of thought, culture, etc.” or a specific example of such, e.g., “Platinum sinks are the latest trend in high-end houses.”
I did a search of Google News back to 1800 for “trending,” and it seems to have first appeared in print around 1850 in the “traveling in a certain direction” figurative sense, always modified by “up,” “down,” etc. So stock prices might be “trending up” or “trending down,” but they were never just described as “trending.” The use of “trending” by itself to mean simply “increasing” in some sense (usually popularity) seems to have arisen in the 1980s (“‘I’ve said to lighten up on them [documentaries] because I think it [comedy] is trending now,’ Lemasters said,” 8/28/86), although the date is hard to pin down.
I’d guess (and it’s just a guess) that the assignment of a positive polarity (and unmodified “stand-alone” status) to “trending” has been due at least partly to the rise of the adjective “trendy” in the early 1960s. “Trendy,” defined by the OED as “Fashionable, up to date, following the latest trend” (“That was how it had always been and how it would go on in spite of trendy clergy trying to introduce so-called up-to-date forms of worship,” Barbara Pym, 1977), is always used to describe something popular (even if the speaker uses “trendy” in a dismissive sense). So “trending” in this new sense essentially means “in the process of becoming trendy” and thus carries, at least ostensibly, a positive sense. Trends which are not considered positive, such as a sharp rise in homelessness among the unemployed in the US, are still always described in news accounts using modifiers such as “up” and “increasing,” and no one (I hope) would be depraved enough to describe sleeping in one’s car as “trendy.”
Do we need this new sense of “trending”? Not really, but, given the popularity of “trendy” as an index of value in our consumer culture, it was probably inevitable.