People whine, or more modernly "whinge," about new words. About the new ways of using old words. They want to nail down English, make it hold still. Like a dead language, like Latin. But English is alive, recklessly sprouting new words for old things, new words that meant old things but with a new twist, old words used new ways, and new words for new things.
I used to be deep in the whirlpool of new words, so close that I was one with it. I was plugged-in when plugged-in was added to the dictionary. A new word would appear in my mind seamlessly as it shot across the tongues of my friends and the pages of books and newspapers. Far out. Fab. Groovy. Outta sight. Righteous. Bummer. Gimmie some skin. Hang loose. Ecosystems. Whole systems. Spaceship Earth. Zero population. Wild edibles. Amerika. Dig it.
Later, I was there in my little suit and scarf when Materiel Management booted out the Purchasing Department and Human Resources took over the Personnel Office. I ran spritely beside adware, subfolder, brain dump, microbrew, the n-word, and biodiversity. I was hot when chill out was a thing.
But somehow, slowly, almost imperceptibly, some words started outpacing me. A new word for stealing, “gank,” (as in “you ganked my X-Box”) came and went without me. Polyamorous slipped by me unnoticed but woo-woo didn’t.
Then one day I was shocked to discover that garden ecosystems were old hat, replaced by the swankier permaculture. Gen Xer’s had axed that old-school talk and broadened the idea. By renaming it, they claimed the concept, took it away from the hippies-turned-Boomers. I resisted. I didn’t want to use that new, pretentious word. Then I realized this is how a person grows old. One step at a time out of sync as the words dance and mutate until they have all rushed ahead and left you behind with a curly old lady perm and frumpy clothes.
No longer yogurt, sourdough, and sauerkraut; it’s wild fermentation.
It’s not you are what you eat, it’s the microbiome.
New and redefined words swirl up like mosquitoes on a hot summer night from the internet, the news, movies, and conversations. Has it always been this fast? Have words always been this fleet-footed but we didn’t know how to measure?
“Are you going to temp that?”
The Oxford English Dictionary (which keeps track of a thousand years of English and some 600,000 current and obsolete words) has added more than 4,000 new words since the beginning of 2019. And I think they are behind. I know I am.
It took me forever to fully understand the ridiculously simple word, “meme.”
And “litigate” challenges me as it populates the news, mirroring the contentiousness of our society, as in this sentence from the New York Times: “Racism is litigated over and over again when another video depicting another atrocity comes to light.” Litigate in my mind has always meant to decide in a court of law. But now its archaic meaning, to dispute, has been re-embraced. Who started that?
Bitchface. Clapback. Nothingburger. Shade. Throwing shade. Meme. Tropes. Dog whistle. Salty. Troll. Dox. The singular They. Woke. Lynching. White fragility. Infodemic. Hashtag.
They rush toward me, not just as new words but as signs of seismic changes. The world shifting beneath me like the proverbial quicksand from which Lassie had to rescue Timmy on television back in my childhood.
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