How old is your English?
While we still call it English, the language we speak today has changed dramatically over the years. A few minutes spent with a King James Bible or a Shakespearean play will strikingly reveal just how much our language has changed.
Within my lifetime I have witnessed numerous changes in our language, many sparked by technology. Harry Truman might have thought of a cell phone as something prison inmates did not need. Ike would probably have thought of a hard drive as an armored tank. I doubt even JFK knew about gigabytes.
Just last week Britain’s Oxford University Press issued a list of new words it is adding to its online dictionary. One of those new words is “vaping,” which describes inhaling smokeless nicotine vapor using e-cigarettes.
Some words and phrases change subtly. Nowadays, for instance, a woman carrying an unborn baby is pregnant. Fifty-some years ago I heard adults refer to pregnant women as being “in the family way” or “expecting” or even “PG.” These days a few movies are “PG” and no one is “in the family way” anymore.
Decades ago folks used the term “fleshy” to describe an individual who was overweight. Use of that term has faded, too.
About 30 years ago an older gentleman came into my department at the Sioux City Journal and asked to speak to one of our salespeople. Unable to remember her name, the customer said, “You know, the fleshy gal who sits over in that corner.”
I understood what he meant and who he wanted, but I’m not sure the salesperson in question would have appreciated his choice of adjectives.
While road rage is not a new phenomenon I don’t recall that term being used 50 years ago. Perhaps we were more polite on the highway back then.
The names motorists call each other in the act of road rage have become more malicious. “Jerk” is an old term which lingers but how long has it been since you’ve heard anyone called a nincompoop, blockhead, knucklehead, ninny, pinhead or simpleton?
I don’t read lips well, but from personal experiences with road rage I know the other drivers were not calling me a “ninny.”
Nowadays we play recorded music on compact discs and mp3 players. When I was a kid we listened to our favorite tunes on a phonograph or phono. You were really uptown if you owned a hi-fi stereo.
When was the last time you heard anyone talk about clinkers? Those of us who recall coal-burning furnaces remember a clinker as what’s left after coal has burned. We spread the clinkers from our stoker furnace on our driveway.
Stoker now there’s another word you don’t hear anymore. For those of you who don’t know, a stoker is a mechanical device used to feed coal to a furnace. It also described a person who fed coal to a furnace as on a steamship.
Your pastor and the church custodian carry church keys. There was a time, however, when a church key was something quite different. Back before beer and pop cans had pull top openers, access to the contents was gained with a church key a small piece of metal with a sharp triangular head. A young man who carried this type of church key in his car’s glove box was not necessarily considering going into the ministry.
At the risk of getting personal, have you worn garters recently? There was a day when many folks did. I wonder how many Americans today even know about garters, beyond the traditional bride’s garter.
Young folks, in the days before panty hose women held up their nylon stockings by attaching the top of each stocking to a short suspender-like device a garter which was attached to their girdle. (Ask your grandmother what a girdle is.) Many men wore elasticized bands called garters around their legs to hold up their socks.
It doesn’t take long for new words to pop into use and for other terms to fade into obsolescence. A few words I hope stick around for long time: kissing, hugging, babies, children, hope, love, peace and ice cream.