Sunday, October 11, 2009
Oct 11 - New Words and Old Worlds
For eons, humankind has been communicating in a variety of ways; some non-verbal and some verbal. As the verbal gained in popularity, the vocabulary exploded and grew and morphed and changed and evolved and became far more richer and precise. No longer was 'red' simply 'red', but evolved into burgundy, carmine, carnation, claret, crimson, damask, garnet, magenta, maroon, oxblood, puce, ruby, scarlet, vermilion - and let's not neglect the adjectives for 'red' like blood, brick, cherry, and fire-engine (from the soon-to-be discontinued MSN Encarta [say goodbye on October 31, 2009]).
And the evolution continues. New words crop up all the time, just as old words lose their meaning or value and disappear. New words can become globally accepted standards; regional and known by all your friends and neighbors but not by the people in the next town; or have multiple meanings in multiple areas - meaning that words are so widespread and ever-changing that I'm OK with that. New words adapt to better suit the needs of the users.
As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, just 10 years ago, common words and terms like iPod and DVR were unknown. The word 'blog' itself is now fully accepted, but is a contraction for 'web log' or 'we blog' (depending on your source) and is therefore a new term coined around 1999.
20 years ago, 'cell phone', 'email' and 'laptop' meant virtually nothing sensical (my word for the opposite of 'nonsensical' - now that's a word that makes me gruntled). 30 years ago, a FAX (short for facsimile) was mostly unknown. "CC" means to copy someone on your email, but its origins are as an abbreviation for "carbon copy" - meaning the copy created when you placed that thin blue sheet of carbon paper between two blank pages before you rolled them into your typewriter. Now I only see something like carbon paper at the dentist's office when he's tasting the bite of a new cap or filling. Mimeo? What's a mimeo?
Growing up, we had an old Merriam-Websters Dictionary from the 1940s or 1950s (I think - Mom, if you're reading this, please save that tome for me). My favorite part of that book were the pages listing the new words that had been recently added. These were things like 'x-ray' 'laser' and 'television'. Commonplace words today that were new-fangled back then. Today, terms like 'google' (a verb) and abbreviations like 'btw' (by the way) are now taking root - will they be the new terms or words of tomorrow?
As a great example, take the word 'yahoo'. Ask nearly anyone today in 2009, and you will get an answer related to the popular website/portal Yahoo! The founders chose this word fifteen years ago in 1994 as an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle." The actual definition at the time was more like "a boorish, crass, or stupid person" - a definition that itself had only been around for about 270 years. In actuality, the word 'yahoo' was invented by Irish writer and clergyman, Jonathan Swift in his novel, Gulliver's Travels (1726). In Part IV, our hero, Lemuel Gulliver, encounters a race of hideous deformed creatures - humans in their base form - known as Yahoos. Prior to that, the word doesn't seem to exist.
The word 'bloody' means covered with a human fluid in the US, but in the UK, it is a swear word like our 'f!@#ing' (yes, I know I used a veiled version of THAT word here for my sensitive readers after ranting about its usage only a week ago in my blog The Curse of Cursing?). Same word, completely different meaning in different areas of the world.
'Gay' used to simply mean cheerful and happy. Nobody uses it as such any more. No longer can The Flintstones have a "gay old time" without eliciting chuckles (yes, we're juvenile).
Today new words crop up daily and old words go by the waysides (what's a 'wayside'? "The side or edge of a road, way, path, or highway" - but do you ever use this word in a sentence other than in one of its clichéd phrases? - NO, which means the term 'waysides' has now fallen by the waysides.)
New words are good. Embrace them. Make them up. If you get enough people using them, you've added to the richness of our global vocabulary.
Now if you will excuse me, I'm gonna just culkin it today. (What does 'culkin' mean? It's short for Macauley Culkin who in 1990 was left "Home Alone." It's therefore now a verb meaning to "stay home alone".)