19 May 2011
As we grow and mature, language becomes our instrument and voice. Our blossoming vocabulary is dependent on human history and the generation in which we grow.
As the past and present knock up against each other, words are added or deleted to spike all that is the English language. But the selfsame word of a few generations ago may be extinct or lively in twenty-first century America.
Currently, new words are stretching themselves to meet the demand of our media-oriented society. Linguistic purists live with the traditional meaning of a word or phrase, and watch with some hesitation at the influx of the new.
When I first realized that history was not static, my preconceptions were blown into a sweet state of being. Anyone can discover a small piece of the past that can influence our understanding of it.
Well, the same can be said about language: We’re constantly adding to the wealth of its numbers and witnessing their effects upon society. The etymology of a word is stunningly fascinating, giving us its back story. “We” mint words as society changes and evolves (cyberspace). Or words are pulled from a traditional role and adopted for a new one (green). Or combinations of words are created to express a need (dustbowl). Or a word is converted into another grammatical usage (e.g., noun into a verb, adjective becomes a noun). Or a new word is forged to suit inventions and innovations that effect the small and larger picture of everyday life (trendy). Anyone or group or company can be responsible for building the foundation that results in a new usage of the old or an entirely new word (Apple, Google).
Examples of the new are fun to recall: 1940s (cheeseburger, fax, jet plane, quiz show, spaceship, TV, update), 1950s (aerospace, computerize, junk mail, skydiving, weirdo), 1960s (cable television, genetic code, hippie, megabyte, sitcom), 1970s (infomercial, personal computer, punk rock, trail mix, video game), 1980s (compact disc, desktop publishing, virtual reality), 1990s (nanotube, personal trainer, scrunchy, Website). With nostalgic aches this brief list gives us a moment to pause and reflect.
The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) documents that between 1900 and 1999 there were 185,000 words added to the English language. It was a prolific century that built the lexicon by twenty-five percent.
Today global communications spreads the new into the vernacular (literally) with cyberspace speed. Additions to everyday speech and writing is widened and shortened all at once. Even as texting shrinks word choice, English-language dictionaries grow.
With the constant morphing (origin: noun, in biology, 1955; as a verb, in cinematic special effects, c. 1987; short for metamorphosis; from Online Etymology Dictionary) lexicographers and grammar mavens are put to the test. Still, as language is altered by the human condition, it brings surefooted word choices and play. It provides its own stunning experiment in our abilities to satisfy societal needs, especially in a country that is experiencing the infusion of many cultures.
History gives us a taste of the most delicious examples of the way a word’s meaning migrates; we all know our favorites. But I especially love “sound” words: ugh, bam, swish, hiss, zap, moan, murmur, sizzle. Some words are mysterious: innuendo. The trend to capture the infusion of cultures residing in America has blended a whole new “melting pot” of vocabulary. And then, of course there is the Urban Dictionary, which posts slang words and phrases on its Web-based site that is maintained by its users.
One of my favorite examples of the way we grab old words and give them new meaning is taken from Mother Nature’s prodigy: one that is rarely out of sight. “Clouds” woo our attention and sometimes disown it. They are taken for granted, hardly being noticed for their critical role in our very survival on this planet. And yet we are dependent on theirs.
Clouds’ historic meaning, of course, is weather-related. But its uses have been converted: judgement that is “clouded” or he’s riding on “cloud nine” or “you have your head in the clouds” or the proverb “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Now we’re witnessing one of the growing areas of technology using it as a strategy. Cloud computing is a virtual umbrella (really software) of files over the Internet that serves to give its users a quick way to access and protect their online information. It’s so twenty-first century that one of Microsoft’s major themes for its 2011 Tech Ed conference is yep: cloud computing. Yes, “clouds” are one of the latest technological perks.
As we endeavor to create a better life, we march through fields of words that demonstrate just how diverse the English language is, and just how adaptable and fluid we are as communicators and inventors. As humanity evolves, we can track language to assure us of the path we’re taking: a path that surely shows how words are evergreen and a cultural phenomenon.