Time Machine

In a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper decided that life in the present was unbearable. His solution was to turn the calendar back to 2003, with hilarious results.

Everyone knows that you can’t turn back the hands of time – well, everyone except English teachers. Ignoring the principles of linguistics and common sense, we stubbornly cling to usages that were current when we were in high school.

That means my verbal preferences are frozen in the 1960s, when I went to high school and college. I will spell all right as two words until my dying day. I never put hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, I avoid using impact as a verb, and I hate the word enthuse.  Time has passed me by, and I don’t mind a bit. I’m one of a handful of people who still use the apostrophe in Hallowe’en.

Turns out, though, that I haven’t been living in a time machine after all. I just read a chapter in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well that made me realize how much my verbal choices have changed over the years. I’ve been part of a language revolution without even knowing it!

Back in the 1960s, Zinsser was a member of the Usage Panel that votes on the acceptability of various words and constructions for The American Heritage Dictionary. I was amazed to find that many words I use all the time were considered controversial back then.

Questionable verbs included trigger, rile, escalate (which was born in the Vietnam era), contact (accepted by only about a third of the panel), outsource, and stonewall (which first became a verb in the Nixon era)

Problematic nouns included blog, laptop, geek, boomer, Google, multi-tasking, slam dunk, trek (rejected by more than half the Usage Panel), senior citizen (rejected by 97% of the Panel), dropout, funky, downer, vibes, rip-off, and bummer

Trendy jargon that earned a thumbs-down from the Usage Panel included TV personality, downsizing, and ongoing.

Most language changes have happened so gradually that nobody noticed them. Words and constructions that were once considered abhorrent seem perfectly normal just a generation later.

The most important principle for all of us to remember is that the process will continue, whether we like it or not. One-word spellings of all right and a lot will soon be widely accepted (sigh). I expect to see binky (colloquial for “pacifier”) in a dictionary any day now. And no one knows what other changes are coming.

It’s a downer and a bummer for many of us senior citizens – but it’s also a testimony to the health and vitality of our wonderful language.

American Heritage Dictionary ok




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