The Way We Word

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Richard Lederer

Back in the olden days we had a lot of moxie. We’d put on our best bib and tucker and straighten up and fly right. Hubba-hubba! We’d cut a rug in some juke joint and then go necking and petting and smooching and spooning and billing and cooing and pitch woo in (depending on when we were making all that whoopee) flivvers, tin lizzies, roadsters, hot rods, and jalopies in some passion pit or lovers’ lane. Heavens to Betsy! Gee whillikers! Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! Holy moley! We were in like Flynn and living the life of Riley, and even a regular guy couldn’t accuse us of being a knucklehead, a nincompoop, or a pill. Not for all the tea in China!

Back in the olden days life was a real gas, a doozy, a dilly, and a pip; flipsville, endsville, the bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers, the cat’s meow, and the cat’s pajamas; far-out, nifty, neat, groovy, ducky, beautiful, fabulous, super, terrif, sweet, and copacetic. Nowadays life is the max, ace, awesome, bad, sweet, fly, kick-ass, gnarly, rad, dank, word, and phat. Life used to be swell, but when’s the last time anything was swell? Swell has gone the way of beehives, pageboys, and the D. A. (duck’s ass), of spats, knickers, fedoras, poodle skirts, saddle shoes, and pedal pushers. Oh, my aching back. Kilroy was here, but he isn’t anymore.

Like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, we have become unstuck in time. We wake up from what surely has been just a short nap and before we can say. “Bob’s your uncle!” or “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” or “This is a fine kettle of fish!” we discover that the words we grew up with, the words that seemed omnipresent as oxygen, have vanished with scarcely a notice from our tongues and our pens and our keyboards. Poof, poof, poof go the words of our youth, the words we’ve left behind. We blink, and they’re gone, evanesced from the landscape and wordscape of our perception, like Mickey Mouse wristwatches, hula hoops, skate keys, cap guns, candy cigarettes, little wax bottles of colored sugar water, and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

Where have all those phrases gone? Long time passing. Where have all those phrases gone? Long time ago: Pshaw. The milkman did it. Think about the starving Armenians. Bigger than a bread box. Banned in Boston. The very idea! It’s your nickel. Don’t forget to pull the chain. Knee high to a grasshopper. Turn-of-the-century. Iron curtain. Domino theory. Third world. Fail safe. Civil defense. Fiddlesticks! You look like the wreck of the Hesperus. Cooties. Going like sixty. I’ll see you in the funny papers. Don’t take any wooden nickels. And awa-a-ay we go! Oh, my stars and garters! It turns out there are more of these lost words and expressions than Carter had liver pills.

The world spins faster, and the speed of technical advance can make us dizzy. It wasn’t that long ago that, in the course of a typical lifetime, only the cast of characters playing out the human drama changed. Now it seems the text of the play itself is revised every day.

Hail and farewell to rumble seats and running boards. Iceboxes and Frigidaires. Victrolas and hi-fi’s. Fountain pens and inkwells. Party lines. Test patterns. Tennis presses. Slide rules. Manual typewriters. Corrasable Bond. Ditto for Photostats and mimeographs. (Do you, like me, remember that turpentiney smell of the mimeo fluid?)

The inexorable advance of technology shapes our culture and the language that reflects it. We used to watch the tube, but televisions aren’t made of tubes anymore, so that figure of speech has disappeared. We used to dial telephone numbers and dial up people and places. Now that almost all of us have converted from rotary to push-button phones, we search for a new verb -- "Sorry, I must have pushed the wrong number"; "I think I'll punch up Doris"; "I've got to index-finger the Internal Revenue Service"; Press M for Murder -- and watch dial dying on the vine. With modern radios, can the demise of “don’t touch that dial!” be far behind?

How many more years do hot off the press, hung out to dry, put through the wringer, and carbon copy have, now that we no longer print with hot lead, hang wet clothes on clotheslines, operate wringer washing machines, and copy with carbon? Do any young folks still say, This is where we came in? The statement means the action or situation is starting to repeat itself, and it comes from the movies. Today there are so many ways of finding out exactly when a movie begins, but back in the olden days we’d get to the theater at pretty much any time and walk in at random. We might watch the last half of a movie and then some trailers, a newsreel, and cartoons (which the multiplexes don’t show anymore) and then the second movie in the double feature and then the beginning of the first movie until the point where we could say, “This is where we came in.”

Do I sound like a broken record? Do you think I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle? In our high-tech times, these metaphors fade away, like sepia photographs in a family album.

Technology has altered our sense of the size of the world and the things in it. Remember the thrill your family felt owning that six-inch black-and-white rabbit-eared television set (soon to be known as the boob tube and idiot box)? Keep the lights off. No talking, please!

Today more and more TV screens are upwards of forty inches. We drive bigger cars, live in bigger homes, eat bigger meals, and inhabit bigger bodies. I am 6’3” and I used to be called a six-footer. Now the NBA is studded with at least a dozen seven-footers, and outstanding female athletes, such as Lisa Leslie, Lindsay Davenport, and Venus Williams, regularly and majestically top six feet, so six-footer has lost its magic.

How to respond to the supersizing of America? That’s the $64 question. The $64 question was the highest award in the 1940s radio quiz show Take It or Leave It. By the 1950s, inflation had set in, and $64 no longer seemed wondrous. Then in 1955 came The $64,000 Question. The popularity of the show helped the $64,000 question become a metaphor for a question whose answer could solve all our problems, but the expression has faded from our lives because that once sumptuous figure no longer impresses us. Neither does millionaire command our awe anymore, now that there are more than two million millionaires in the United States.

While our bodies and our possessions have expanded, our world has grown smaller, and the language of distance has changed. Remember that admonition Shhh. I’m on long distance!? Phrases like long distance and coast to coast and even worldwide used to hold such excitement for us. Now we take them for granted, so we hardly ever use them. Nor do we use the likes of mailman, fireman, waiter, and workman’s compensation. As a culture we have fashioned letter carrier, firefighter, server, and worker’s compensation, genderless terms that avoid setting males as the norm and females as aberrations from that norm.

When’s the last time you heard or uttered the word stewardess? Now those women and (increasingly) men who try to make us comfortable as we hurtle through the air packed in a winged sardine can have transmogrified into flight attendants. Isn’t is wonderful to live in an age when a flight attendant can make a pilot pregnant?

This de-gendering of our language reflects the new realities of our lives and a growing respect for the humanity of women. Remember housewife and homemaker? Now we call such a woman a stay-at-home mom, respecting her choice to fill such a crucial role. Remember how we used to taunt other kids with “Your mother wears combat [or army] boots!”? These days, your mother could very well be wearing combat boots!

And we’ve grown more sensitive about other areas of life. Whither spinsters and old maids, divorcees, illegitimate children, juvenile delinquents, cripples, midgets, and the deaf-and-dumb? Gone, too, are Bowery bums and tramps and hobos riding the rails. They’ve left the neighborhood and been replaced by transients and the homeless -- kinder, gentler, less judgmental words that recognize that people living on the street and in the woods usually haven’t made some sort of lazy choice to be there.

At the same time, we’re more blunt about a lot of things. Did women get pregnant when I was a lad? Not that I recall. Pregnant was a little too graphic for polite company. Women, instead, were in a family way or expecting. What they were expecting was a visit from the stork.

At the high risk of being labeled a geezer, fogy, and curmudgeon, I’ll say right here that along with the bluntness of modern parlance has arisen a certain impoliteness. Has that simple first-person pronoun I been banished? What we’re hearing these days is “Me and Chip like to go to parties that blow out our eardrums.” To those of us who remember the days when teachers thought it important to pass the torch of correct English to the next generation “Me and Chip” squeaks like chalk scraping across the blackboard of our grammatical sensibility. But “Me and Chip” is also a social atrocity because it reverses the order of words that we were taught back in the olden days: always to put ourselves last in a string of nouns and pronouns. “Me and Chip” literally reflects a me-first culture. I’ll stick with “Chip and I.”

As long as I’ve left the rant-control district, a certain polite acknowledgment from our youth has gone far south. That statement is “You’re welcome.” I’m sitting at a table in a restaurant, and I ask the server for extra lemon with my tea. He or she returns with those slices and I say “thank you.” How does the server respond? You know, don’t you? Not with “you’re welcome,” but with “no problem.” No problem? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to grab the server by the collar and hiss, “You’re darned right it’s no problem. It’s your job!”

During the past century, the English language has added an average of 900 new words a year. As newly minted words have added to the currency of our language, the meanings of the words we grew up with have changed under our eyes and ears. A hunk no longer means simply a large lump of something, and rap isn’t just ‘60s talk. Crack means more than just a small opening, ice more than frozen water, and pot more than a cooking utensil. A pocket isn't just for pants, and a bar code is no longer ethics for lawyers or the etiquette of behavior in a café. A pound is no longer just a unit of currency or measurement but that tipsy tic-tac-toe game that sits above the 3 on your keyboard or below the 9 on your telephone.

Remember when IBM was something a two-year-old might say to a parent? The computer, the most deeply striking technology of our lifetimes, has powerfully challenged our sense of so many hitherto uncomplicated words -- back up, bit, boot, cookie, crash, disk, hacker, icon, mail, memory, menu, mouse, pop-up, scroll, spam, virus, and window. Of all the words that have undergone a semantic shift this past half century the one that rattles the most cages and yanks the most chains is gay. We grew up with gay as an adjective that meant “exuberant, high spirited,” as in the Gay Nineties and gay divorcee.

In the second half of the 20th century gay began traveling the linguistic path of specialization, making the same journey as words such as chauvinism, segregation, comrade, and colored. Shortly after World War II, activists popularized the concept of Gay Liberation -- and many heterosexuals have lamented that a perfectly wonderful word has been lost to general usage, wordnapped by the homosexual community.

But as much as heteros believe they need gay, the English language needs it more -- as a more fulfilling word for the gay community than homosexual because it communicates a culture rather than concentrating on sexual orientation. For those who lament the loss of gay to general discourse, I recommend that henceforth they be merry.

This can be disturbing stuff, this winking out of the words of our youth, these words that lodge in our heart’s deep core. But just as one never steps into the same river twice, one cannot step into the same language twice. Even as one enters, words are swept downstream into the past, forever making a different river. We of a certain age have been blessed to live in changeful times. For a child each new word is like a shiny toy, a toy that has no age. We at the other end of the chronological and language arc have the advantage of remembering that there are words that once did not exist and that there were words that once strutted their hour upon the earthly stage and now are heard no more, except in our collective memory. It’s one of the greatest advantages of aging. We can have archaic and eat it too.

(Published with permission from Richard Lederer, an American author, speaker, and teacher. He is best known for his books on the English language and on wordplay such as puns, oxymorons, and anagrams. He refers to himself as "the Wizard of Idiom," "Attila the Pun," and "Conan the Grammarian." His weekly column, "Looking at Language", is syndicated in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Photo of Richard Lederer by Hoffman Photographic.

Photo 2: One of many books published by Richard Lederer on words and language.