I am a lover of words and language. Now, there’s a description guaranteed to induce yawns and eye-rolling.
I genuinely believe, however, there are upsides to enjoying words and the language they create. During a vocabulary lesson with my freshman English students years ago, I became engrossed in attaching prefixes and suffixes to root words: graph/graphic/graphite/autograph/bibliography/geographic/biographical. Following my flurry of wordsmithing, I triumphantly turned around from the chalkboard only to hear one boy mutter, “I never saw anyone so excited about words.” I prefer to consider his comment high praise.
Sadly, there are also downsides. As I passed back rough drafts from reports about water conservation that same class would eventually submit to their science teacher, another student challenged my marking of incorrectly-spelled words, “How do you know these words are spelled wrong? They are science words.” Sigh …
Enthusiasts in any area can, and unfortunately do, bog down conversation with too many details and too much minutiae. Word lovers are no different from devoted sports fans or proud grandparents. It is just that we word fanatics must use so many words to explain important differences between words – such as dull and boring.
However, word aficionados, and their uninterested counterparts, often miss one fascinating concept: words and language are always changing. Literary historian Gilbert Highet maintains: “language is a living thing … parts of it become old … drop off … are forgotten … new pieces bud out … spread into leaves…”
An example of new “buds and leaves” occurred as I tried to keep up with the word bad during my teaching years. In my personal experience, accidents, storms, checks, jokes, luck, and hair days could be bad. I was therefore unprepared in the mid 80’s when my students began describing their favorite cars and motorcycles as bad. It took adjustment on my part to understand their new, positive definition of this old word – and several years before the updated meaning actually appeared in dictionaries.
Changes in words have abounded in my lifetime alone. At one time, green was simply a color in my Crayola box; the word now refers to an entire environmental movement with potential political overtones. An apple contains a core, but core nowadays also refers to an individual’s torso area – according to all the exercise infomercials. And I suspect today’s millennials use the term tool more often to refer to foolish people than to work implements.
Not surprisingly, a majority of word changes stem from new technology continually pervading our lives. We surf channels and the internet as well as ocean waves. Birds can tweet, and so can humans. My father used to fry up some Spam, which now occasionally but annoyingly shows up among my e-mail messages. And I would much rather enjoy a video that has gone viral than suffer with an infection described by the same word.
After years of experience with entire classrooms of teenagers groaning at the mere mention of grammar, I will risk a few more groans to mention another type of word change: the “verbing” of nouns. Most of us have been “verbing” for quite some time. Any time we party into the night, applaud athletes who medal at the Olympics, or phone our friends, we have used a noun as a verb – we have transformed a word once considered a person, place or thing into an action word.
The use of gift as a verb – the parents gifted their daughter a new car – drives me batty; but I myself am guilty of “verbing” whenever I use my computer to google a topic.
The world of technology again provides additional examples. We bookmark favorite websites and text our children. People friend and unfriend one another on social media, while authors blog and topics trend.
People have been changing words since the beginning of time, but they have also been creating them for just as long. New word combinations reflect changes in culture whenever and wherever. Flying saucers began appearing in the sky and in our language in the 40’s. We first danced disco in the 60’s and ate junk food in the 70’s, with soccer moms showing up in the 90’s. Since the turn of the new century, we have been taking mental health days and making bucket lists.
I am enough of a traditionalist, however, to miss those words I seldom hear anymore, the parts of our language that have become old, dropped off, been forgotten.
In this never-ending political season, why can’t pundits and talking heads call out candidates for the malarkey, the balderdash, the pure poppycock they keep spreading? Why does no one utter a well-placed fiddle faddle, horsefeathers, piffle, or hogwash in response to some of their cockamamie ideas?
It is not difficult to understand how modern parents have become frazzled: they mollycoddle their obstreperous, persnickety children, who lallygag around and display precious little gumption – except to have a conniption fit when they are vexed.
Would it not be wonderful to shout spiffy and grand with regular and reckless abandon? And I secretly wish for a world in which Uggs and any item from Victoria’s Secret could occasionally be referred to as galoshes and unmentionables.
By the way, most of these words I long to restore to our working vocabularies – well, I heard them often enough while I was growing up: persnickety, lallygag, obstreperous seem uncomfortably familiar…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.