Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 2002 / 27 Tishrei, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Brave New Words


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Part of the most populous generation in American history, a baby boomer (we'll call her Boomer for short) entered the earthly stage in 1950. During the first decade of her life, she was unaware that a multitude of brave new words were making their way into her world and becoming enshrined in American English dictionaries -- air show, desegregation, carbon dating, egg cream, hi-fi, H-bomb, idiot box, jet set, junk mail, karate, knee-jerk, Little League, nerd, overkill, panic button, quantum leap, queen-size, show-and-tell, snow blower, tank top, urban sprawl, veggies, wash-and-wear, world-class, and yellow pages.

But as she became an adult, then a soccer mom, and, ultimately, an empty-nester, she began to realize that a gazillion neologisms -- around five thousand new words each year! -- were altering the way she looked at the world and occasionally requiring a reality check. Stressed out from life in the fast track spent networking with yuppies, yumpies, and dinks, she disconnected her cellular phone and paid some megabucks to go to a fat farm. Feeling like a couch potato, she stopped her feeding frenzies and gave the high five to grazing on nouvelle cuisine.

As newly minted words added to the currency of the language of the wicked awesome 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Boomer felt as if she was having a bad-hair day every day in a world in which the parts of speech and meanings of words transmogrified under her very eyes and ears. FAX, Fedex, microwave, scroll, and Xerox had turned into verbs, and Bill Murray got slimed in the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters. Crack meant more than just a small opening, and ice more than frozen water, and going postal became not just a decision to mail a letter. A pocket wasn't just for pants, and a bar code was no longer just ethics for lawyers or the etiquette of behavior in a cafe, and rap wasn't just '60s talk. Zapping was not something that futuristic ray guns did but something that people did with a microwave or a television remote control (along with surfing). A set point was no longer just a tennis score, and spin was not just what a tennis ball did, especially in the hands of the spin doctors. IRA no longer stood just for "Irish Republican Army," CD s were no longer just certificates, and PC came to signify both personal computer and politically correct.

A pound was no longer just a unit of currency or measurement but, in the words of James J. Kilpatrick, my colleague in columny, "the little thingamajig above the 3 on a standard typewriter or computer keyboard. It looks like a blank tic tac toe game that has had too much to drink."

Known as "elephant's ear" in Sweden, "small snail" in France and Italy, "cat tail" in Finland, "monkey tail" in Holland, "spider monkey" in Germany, "cinnamon cake" in Norway, "little dog" in Russia, and "shtrudel" in Israel, the @ -- or "at-sign" -- has become a standard symbol in electronic addresses. Used for centuries in the sense of "each at the price of," the @ has taken on the locative sense of "at."

In fact, the hot new technology of the computer thoroughly befuddled the meanings of back up, bit, boot, browser, crash, disk, dot, hacker, hard drive, hit, mail, memory, menu, mouse, net, park, prompt, provider, scroll, spam, surf, virus, Web site (no longer just where Charlotte lives), and window. As the wonders of the computer impacted on her mind, she acquired a new user-friendly vocabulary: clip art, desktop publishing, emoticon, floppy disk, ink-jet, Internet, keypad, kludge, laptop, morphing, mouse potato (a couch potato attached to a computer), number crunching, software, spreadsheet, and voice recognition. To add to these sound bytes, bit-map, chat room, HTML, home page, netiquette, netizen, URL, VCR, World Wide Web, zettabyte -- and, of course, millennium bug (shortened to Y2K) -- all debuted in dictionaries in the 1990s.

No wonder that Boomer began feeling like a dissed gomer, dumbed-down dweeb, bummed out newbie, totally loose cannon, and ditzy airhead.

As the Me Generation (a term invented by the writer Tom Wolfe) grew up and grayed, our disoriented Boomer found that the business of America appeared to be business, and the business of business was to devise a lexicon of new terms to describe new fiscal realities. The second half of the twentieth century was a "golden" age of commerce -- golden handshakes, golden hellos, and golden parachutes. The increasingly proactive world of business also gave us ATMs, baby Bells, bank card, debit card, domestic partner, entry level, Euro dollar, family leave, glass ceiling, intrapreneurs, maxed out, pink collar, PIN, power breakfasts and power lunches, and power ties, program trading, quality circles, queen bees, telemarketing, and white knights.

But Boomer found that life among the movers and shakers was fraught with the perils of greenmail, hostile takeovers, junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, and poison pills. It was also a decade of considerable monkey business -- sleazebags and sleazeballs engaging in insider trading, often leaving paper trails that led to smoking guns and white collar prisons. Boomer was bombarded with hundreds of high-tech brave new words for a brave new world of science and technology. She found herself playing telephone tag with such cutting edge dictionary entries as blusher, bullet train, call forwarding and call waiting, CAT scan, COBOL, cold fusion, faux pearls (and faux anything else), fiber-optic, fuzz-buster, global warming, greenhouse effect, laser, makeover, meltdown, microwaveable, nuclear winter, quark, super collider, tanning booth (and bed ), voice activated, voice mail (a new oxymoron), and voiceprint.

As Boomer grew up, she found that medical breakthroughs broke into the headlines almost every day: alternative medicine, arthroscopy, attention deficit disorder, bikini cut, genetic counseling, geriatrician, ibuprofen, in vitro fertilization, liposuction, liquid diet, live liver donor transplant, Lyme disease, mad cow disease, minoxidil, passive smoking, PMS, product tampering, Prozac, seasonal affective disorder (which yields the bacronym SAD), sunblock, taxol, and toxic shock syndrome. For a while, she joined the fitness craze and became a triathlete who built up her abs and glutes with low-impact aerobics, aquacise, dancercise, and jazzercise.

At the same time, Boomer was troubled by the spread of AIDS drugs through the decade and the population -- ARC, AZT, HIV complex, homophobia, and safe sex (had it ever been safe?); crackhead, crackhouse, freebase, gateway drug, ice, and narcoterrorism.

Our Boomer became swept up in an age marked by considerable political and social change, and this change in turn left its mark on the American language -- action clothing, Afrocentric, bag lady, blended family, carjacking, charter school, codependent, condo conversion, Contra, co-parent, designated driver, designer jeans (genes, or anything else), distance learning, disinformation, Ebonics, exit poll, extended care, gentrification, gerontocracy, glasnost, global village, gridlock, happy hour (which usually lasts longer than an hour), health spa, high top, homeschooler, Kwanza, mall rat, managed care, no-growth, quality time, POSSLQ, rust belt (or bowl), seatbelt laws, significant other, single parent, singles bar, stepfamily, superfund, surrogate mother, touchy feelie, and trophy wife.

Boomer learned to come to terms with glitzy, in-your-face new entertainment terms, such as acid rock, action figure, boom box, breakdancing, bungee jumping, cable-ready, camcorder, channel surfing, clear channel, colorization, closed and open captioned, docudrama and documusical, extreme sports, gangsta rap, ghetto blasters, hackysack, high top, infotainment, laser and compact disks, line dancing, MTV, new wave music, new age anything, road rage, slam dunk, snowboarding, sound bite, snowboarding, televangelist, ten-speed, and veejay.

Lucky Boomer. Throughout her life, a growing interest by foodies in ethnic and regional cuisine added a menu of new words to the American palate, food court, and vocabulary. The American obsession with food is reflected in the neologisms bagel chips and bagel dogs, biscotti, blush wine, brew decaf, buffalo wings, callaloo, chimichanga, corn dog, enoki, fajita, farfalle, frozen yogurt, green goddess dressing, ice wine, latte, mesclun, microbrew, oat bran, primavera, ranch dressing, sea legs, shiitaki, smoothie, surimi, and wine coolers -- many of which are comfort foods, not junk foods. Boomer wasn't really distraught, and certainly wasn't ready to quit the day job or go postal or ballistic. In fact, this whole business of linguistic change was a no-brainer to her. She knew that, just as one never steps into the same river twice, one cannot step into the same language twice -- that, even as one enters, the words are swept downstream into the future, forever making a different river. Or, to switch the metaphor, she knew that language is like a tree that sheds its leaves and grows new ones so that it may live on. Changes in our vocabulary occur not from decay or degeneration. Rather, new words, like new leaves, are essential to a living, healthy organism. A language draws its nutrients from the environment in which its speakers live. Throughout history, as people have met with new objects, experiences, and ideas, they have needed new words to describe them. During the second half of the twentieth century, the tree of American English experienced a riot of new growth -- a sign that our multifoliate language is deeply rooted in the nourishing soil of change.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.

Up

09/26/02: English is a Crazy Language!
09/12/02: How wise is proverbial wisdom?
09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2002, Richard Lederer