In the 1960s it was "hippie speak." In the 1980s we had "Valspeak." Now there are "cyber words."
Rosmarie Ostler, in her fascinating new volume Dewdroppers, Waldos and Slackers: A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century, compares synonyms over the past century as she relates how each time span influenced the American lexicon.
So where do these words come from? According to the author, just about any aspect of daily life--fashion, food, music, technology, or politics--can add to the dictionary. There were the "-ins" of the 1960s: sit-ins, love-ins, wade-ins (swimming at segregated beaches), and wed-ins (hippie marriages). The misadventures of the Nixon administration in the 1970s gave us-gate, as in Floodgate (the improprieties of Rep. Daniel J. Flood of Pennsylvania), skategate (the confrontation between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics), and even Gate-gate, the proliferation of adding the suffix to describe scandals of various import.
Like pet rocks and Rubik's Cubes, language fads come and go--and sometimes return. Many phrases are appropriate only within a specific historical context, while others seem to endure. Groovy, for example, was an offshoot of "in the groove," a musical term in the 1930s to describe a jazz musician who was particularly proficient. It was still in use in the 1940s but then became un-hip until its resurrection in the 1960s (and 1990s, thanks to Austin Powers movies).
In the postwar years, young people became increasingly anti-authoritarian in their behavior. Blame it on Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. One way to keep the old folks at bay was to cut them out of your communications.
But in reality, the same could be said for every generation. "Kids," a song from the 1960 musical Bye, Bye Birdie, asks the musical question, "Who can understand anything they say?" Young people develop their own code to set themselves apart from their elders. And trying to understand doesn't help; it's a source of embarrassment to even try. The beatnik culture of the 1950s created its unique language, and if you weren't hep to what they were saying, daddy-o, you were living in Squaresville.
New technologies (and, to a degree, the advertising used to popularize them) are other sources of cutting-edge communication. The introduction of the automobile, television, plastics, the space program, and computers each came with expressions that gradually infiltrated everyday language. "Insider slang and fringe-group jargon are usually in use for a while before they enter the linguistic mainstream," Ostler writes.
As a current example, let's look at Google. Used as a noun, it is the name of the popular Internet search engine. But it can also be used as a verb, as in "to google," meaning to use that conveyance for research (especially in terms of personal background checks).
Phrases based on historical events can be quite blunt or sarcastic. President Herbert Hoover was the target of a great deal of acrimony during the Depression. Hoover blankets were newspapers used to keep warm while sleeping outdoors; Hoover flags were empty pockets turned inside out; and Hoover shoes had holes in the soles.
The use of abbreviations and acronyms also helped people feel they were in the know. Thanks to the New Deal, Americans could take part in programs designed to get them back on their feet while time providing invaluable services, such as the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) and the PWA (Public Works Administration), which should not be confused with the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
And, of course, sex has always "sold." As the march of time has worn the veneer off youthful innocence, language has become increasing graphic and, in the opinion of many, vulgar. Over the years, a cute girl has been known as a peacherino (1910s); sheba (1920s); whistle bait, dream puss, and zazz girl, among others (1940s); dolly (1950s); fox (1970s); and hottie (1980s). The 1990s term--sunflower--seems anachronistic, more appropriate for use a century ago.
Ostler guides the reader through these linguistic time capsules in a manner both entertaining and educational, putting the words in their historical context, rather than just listing them dictionary-style.
And now that this review is done, black time's here, termite. Gotta split. Enjoy the tome, which, to paraphrase Saddam Hussein, could turn out to be the mother of American popular language studies.
Keep on truckin'. --Ron Kaplan
Garner's Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003. 879 pp. ISBN 0-19-516191-2, US$39.95)
Although Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (DMAU) spends most of its time on a shelf beside my desk, I must confess that I've taken the DMAU to bed with me on more than one occasion. And it's not just me--other converts to the Church of Garner will also admit to toting it on the subway, bringing it into the bathroom with them, or looking up the Harvard comma and continuing to read the book like a novel for another hour.
It's an ideal language resource--scholarly but not smug, thorough but not overly arcane--which didn't seem to require improvement or expansion. Happily, the newest edition features the same accessible arrangement and attitude (and the occasional tart expression of annoyance) as in the original.
Now called merely Garner's Modern American Usage (or "the GMAU," I suppose), the latest version builds on a number of entries already familiar to Garner loyalists. The expanded capitalization entry now covers headlines, compass directions, up-style headings, titles and their articles, and overcorrection. The essay on metaphors delineates wayward figures of speech more formally than in the previous iteration.
Previous entries have disappeared here and there--the place-names topic, for example, has been merged with other appropriate entries--but the text wouldn't have suffered from more extensive cuts. Many of the shorter items (like consignee and polygamy; polyandry; polygyny) address pronunciation or explicate a Venn diagram of definition, work a basic dictionary could do. Others (ocher; ochre, for one) address alleged confusion between American and British spellings, but most readers will either already understand the differences presented, or rely on their word processing programs to help them avoid Anglophonic mistakes.
But the changes in the GMAU are primarily additions, and some of these seem extraneous as well. Again, if a usage maven worries that she's spelled anilingus incorrectly, she can check her Webster's 11C. This entry in GMAU isn't about spelling, but rather tells you that employing the variant anilinctus is needlessly pretentious. Meanwhile, the entry profanity declines to comment on its use, except to recommend other resources. Why include an item for the sole purpose of remarking that it lies beyond the scope of the book? And the inclusion of a new essay on mondegreens is something of a mystery, until Garner explains that saying "for all intensive purposes" instead of "for all intents and purposes" is essentially the same as hearing Jimi Hendrix say "'scuse me while I kiss this guy." It's amusing enough, but not really pertinent to the methodology of written English.
New entries also include those on the history and practice of functional variation ("the ability of a word to shift from one grammatical function to another"), denizen names (Garner furnishes a comprehensive list of country names and the accompanying adjectival forms), the cultural definition of "Standard English," and numerical prefixes. Several of these, like the entries for names and diminutives, serve as handy guides for formal correspondence and present key information more concisely than, say, the Chicago Manual of Style.
Another noteworthy addition to the GMAU is Garner's introductory essay, "Making Peace in the Language Wars," in which he gives the reader a bit of background on prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. (In case you don't know the usage-fascist lingo, prescriptivists want the line held on the rules of English; descriptivists insist that we should let the language evolve, even if that means the word irregardless becomes accepted usage.)
Garner declares himself "a prescriber who uses descriptivist methods--in effect, a descriptive prescriber," which lends his observations a better-reasoned air than many on the subject. His recommendations for reconciling the two sides of the debate make sense, but he's essentially preaching to the choir, as anyone who purchases the GMAU is by definition likely to take an interest in, if not insist upon, grammatical rectitude already. Still, said purchasers will find in the essay's footnotes a veritable garden of linguistic-resource delights with which to pad their Amazon wish lists, from Zinsser to Satire to David Foster Wallace's now-infamous screed for Harper's--and Garner uses the word fripperies at one point, which is its own reward.
The new GMAU is, essentially, more of the same. Readers in search of quick spelling fixes or answers to hyphenation questions will still find them, and more; casual browsers hoping to get distracted by numerous cross-references, then drawn into a discussion of ergative verbs, can still do that, and spend more time at it. For every seldom-used reconnoiter; reconnoitre entry, Garnerites will find a useful and enlightening one, for instance, on the difference between remember and recollect. It's probably not a necessity for owners of the older edition, but it's a solid investment.
[Sarah D. Bunting writes about usage, baseball, and cats (among other subjects) at http://www.tomatonation.com.]
[Disclosure: The Editor is employed by Oxford University Press and was involved in the acquisition of Ms. Ostler's book (but not in the acquisition of Mr. Garner's).]
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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