A Few Words On Words


I’ve been reading the dictionary again. And I’m here to tell you:  the English language is exciting and complex, and very fluid.  Words come and go, new ones get invented, old ones flow down some universal drain and are heard no more.

My father used to call a blouse a “shirtwaist” and a slip a “petticoat.”  When was the last time you heard those words?  And when was the last time someone under sixty put on a pair of “dungarees?”  They are “jeans” now.  Ever eat an “alligator pear” or an “egg tomato”?  Of course, you have, only now you call it an avocado and a plum tomato.  Dragonflies are “darning needles” in some parts of the country, though in the Bronx, where I grew up, we somehow made them “dining needles” which makes no sense at all.  What is a dining needle, anyway? The mispronunciation completely destroys that nice mind-picture of the long, needlelike body emerging from the lacy wings, which led to “darning needle” in the first place.  On the other hand, I recently heard someone ask for brandy in a “brandy sniFFer” instead of the correct term, “brandy sniFTer” (the glass with the wide bottom and tapered top, the better to sniff the brandy) and I thought that was a great improvement.

Words and phrases come in and out of our language every which way, across geographical borders, and through public events, and politics: “Blacklist,” for example, became a common part of our language in the early 50’s with the McCarthy era, and now means any list that names people or groups with the intent to deny them work or access, because of something they did to displease the list maker. “Holocaust” changed from a small “h” word meaning firestorm to a capital “H” meaning the decimation of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe in WW II; now, it has changed again and come to mean any systematic destruction of a people of one ethnic identity. “Blitzkreig” came into English from WWII, as well.  It was the sudden, intense German attack plan, and has come to mean any sudden, intense action:  think of a media blitz or an advertising blitz.  And look how politics has changed the word “abortion” into the phrase “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion” to “pro-life.” Let’s not even discuss the phrase “politically correct.” (Which is kissing cousin to “emotionally intelligent.”)

Technologies, television and the internet borrow words from nature and everyday life:  we “surfed” the channels and now we “surf” the net, like riders on a great big sea of airwaves and information.  We “hack” into someone’s private e-mail, and it sounds like what it is: a blunt instrument and a break-in.  “Spam,” chopped up and indeterminate food became chopped up and unwanted material on our e-mail. We “browse” with a “server,” which once might have meant going to the library with our restaurant waiter, but now means we use a computer to look through information.   And, in turn, technology has given us back words, redefined.  “Default” once meant only a setting for your computer printer. Now it can describe your habitual position on an issue.  It doesn’t take a machine to be “hardwired,” anymore; it could mean you and your genetic predispositions. To build a “firewall” is no longer just to protect your computer files; it can refer to your life.  And there are entirely new words we got from the computer: “laptop,” “emoji,” “online,” and, of course, Google, which is not only the name of a company, but has become a verb which means to look something up on the internet.

Sometimes words get re-purposed. “Drop” used to mean the shape of a tear or the vertical trajectory from the top down. Now when a new song is released into the world, it is said to “drop.”  Colors “pop.”  A traffic accident is referred to as a crash lately, which I find refreshingly blunt.  Nouns get to be verbs: “journaling” and “friending” are trending, as are “texting” and “sexting.”

There are certain words that are on my…shall we say “blacklist” because they are so overused that I think if I hear them again I will scream:  The noun “abuse” because people use it to mean everything from real abuse to the lack of whipped cream on their ice cream sundaes; “awesome” which used to be reserved for sunsets at the Grand Canyon, but now is shrunk to fit things like a nice hat or a new singer;  “challenge” because it is the euphemism du jour: vertically challenged is the formerly short, horizontally challenged the formerly fat, educationally challenged the formerly dumb, psychologically challenged the formerly crazy and so on.

Portmanteau words are nothing new. “Sitcom” for example.  Now we have “frenemy” and “dramedy” and “podcast” and “spork,” neat word-suitcases that tote two words in one.  I like them all, with the exception of “blog” which strikes me as an ugly little plug of a word to describe this nice thing that I am doing right now.  What could replace it?  “Wessay?” Nah.  But language is fluid and something will come along.  It always does.

About betteann

Writer, teacher, cook
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