MAXWELL:  Taking the words out of my mouth

2/2/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like all other writers I know, I am a lover of words. I love all words, from the most poetic to those that prissydom deems vulgar and profane. Words, of course, are the tools we use to earn our keep. Therefore, we covet these tools, spending our time studying them, determining their limits, arranging and rearranging them all to make sense of our world both for ourselves and our readers.

The average person, however, rarely pauses to appreciate the simple beauty and value of words. Not only are words tools for creating, imparting useful information, entertaining ourselves and others and forging relationships, but they are, as John Ayto writes, “a mirror of their times.”

Ayto, editor of the new book Twentieth Century Words, published by Oxford University Press, has spent a lifetime monitoring language. “By looking at the areas in which the vocabulary of a language is expanding fastest in a given period, we can form a fairly accurate impression of the chief preoccupations of society at that time and the points at which the boundaries of human endeavour are being advanced.”

Amazingly, the century just past expanded English vocabulary by 25 percent. That fact alone speaks to the sheer dynamism of the past 100 years, a period that saw two world wars, the Great Depression in the United States, the splitting of the atom, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, space exploration, the computer and the Internet.

During the 1900s in the United States, Americans enjoyed the new technology of film, radio, aircraft and cars. And what are some of the new words the nation gained? Dashboard, aerodome, wireless, cinema. These remained sources of many neologisms for many years.

The 1900s also was the decade of some of Freud’s greatest work. As a result, the English-speaking world was forever saddled with terms such as psychoanalysis and libido. But the 1900s produced many other expressions that remain with us: anorexic, bump off, cryogenic, undies.

The decade of World War I gave us military terms such as gas mask, shell shock and tank that conjured up pain and suffering and fear that dominated the linguistic landscape. Moderns will be surprised to learn that the 1910s also produced bimbo, come off it, jazz, posh and prenuptial.

From movies and old newsreels, most of us recall some of the gems from the Jazz Age _ Charleston, Oxford bags, jive, perm, sex, sweetie pie. This was a time preoccupied with post-war respite and merriment. “Then in the 1930s,” Ayto writes, “the build-up to and the start of a new war (dive-bomb, blitzkrieg, black-out) put such frivolities in their place. In the first half of the 1940s, World War II was again providing the majority of new usages (doodlebug, gas chamber, kamikaze), but the return of peace brought other concerns to the fore: reconstruction, national and international (National Health, Marshall Plan, superpower), and the nuclear threat (the bomb).

Believe it or not, a few computer terms surfaced during the 1950s _ electronic brain, hardware. The 1950s unleashed the first signs of the nation’s so-called youth culture. We picked up beatnik and teen.

And then came the hard-charging 1960s, when the nation’s center wanted to give way, when “no hope without dope” was the mantra, when free love was, well, free. We got African-American, agenda, Beatlemania, black power, brain drain, Barbie doll, disco and miniskirt.

If the 1960s represented the party decade, the 1970s stood for the dolorous, politically correct decade, when the destruction of the environment seemed just around the corner. Remember Agent Orange? And we had airhead, ayatollah, bulimia, boat people, human shield, hit list, personkind, sexual politics, tree hugger, green and global warming.

The 1980s of the Reagan administration were a time of money and greed, and our vocabulary was filled with many financial terms: dawn raid, white knight, dinky, yuppie. And the nation developed some pretty heavy-duty attitude problems during this period. It gave us, for example, road rage and out of order.

The 1990s produced a dizzying number of neologisms depicting a decade of fragmentation and the rise of the Internet. Sample our vocabulary: bad hair day, ethnic cleansing, goodfella, granny dumping, trailer trash, road-kill, World Wide Web, mail bomb, grunge, Gulf War Syndrome, Viagra and don’t ask, don’t tell.

What new words will the first year of the 21st century bring? Which events and trends will make us see our world in a new light and force us to find new ways of expressing reality? No matter what these new words are, writers will use them to reinvent their work.