Words that survive the test of time

If you want to get a perspective on the 20th century, forget the inane lists of the 100 most important people, and look at the language. English is a remarkably plastic tongue, constantly generating new words, or new senses for old ones. What has been added to the language is an index of what has happened and what has been important in the history and culture of the English-speaking peoples.

Fortunately, Oxford University Press, which publishes the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary, has a correspondingly huge database. ("Database" entered English in 1962, hardly a generation back.) And John Ayto has exploited those resources in writing "Twentieth Century Words," a book that records the new things that have come into our speech and writing during the past 10 decades. His choices tell us a great deal about ourselves.

Ours has been a century of great cruelty. Note simply that "holocaust" - "burnt sacrifice" - has been in the language for centuries but took on its current terrible meaning in the 1950s. The related word coined specifically by and for this century is "genocide."

It has been a century for science and technology. "Fax" came into use first in 1948 as a noun. By the 1970s, when the technology itself started becoming widespread and affordable, the noun came into general rather than technical use and metamorphosed into a verb as well. The "greenhouse effect" was first identified in 1929 but did not often appear outside scientific literature until global warming was identified in the late 1980s.

It has been a century of remarkable cultural shifts. Look at "Ms.," which was generated in 1952. "The Simplified Letter" advised that this compromise between Miss and Mrs. "solves an age-old problem."

The title was widely ridiculed when feminists advocated its use in the 1970s. "It stands for 'manuscript,' " people argued (though any dictionary shows many abbreviations with more than one meaning). "It is unpronounceable," argued others (though people in the South and border states had been addressing ladies as "Miz" for decades). Despite the resistance, it appears to have made a secure place for itself in common usage.

"Wimmin," however, the 1983 coinage designed to convert "women" into a word not containing the root "men," turns up in professedly feminist writing and not much anywhere else.

This century has been a good one for terms of abuse. "Wonk," the 1954 term for someone obsessed with details of some specialized activity, accompanies 1951's "nerd" - someone "socially inept" and "annoyingly studious." In Britain the cognate is "anorak," from the hooded jacket that nerds customarily wear there. "Wonk" underwent further evolution in the 1980s, when American contempt for governance found its expression in "policy wonk," suggesting contempt for officials who make an effort to know what they are doing.

There may be something to that contempt: It was, after all, public officials who gave us "safe haven" during the Persian Gulf War. Someone apparently grafted the "safe" from "safe harbor" (not all harbors are safe) onto "haven" (by definition, a safe place). The creation of this obnoxious pleonasm (from the Greek "pleon" - "more" - meaning redundant) illustrates the bureaucrat's familiar combination of self-importance, pretension, and ignorance.

Many words travel through the language by circuitous routes. The exclamation "Cowabunga!" appears to have originated with Chief Thunderthud on "The Howdy Doody Show" in 1954. It passed into surfing slang as a exclamation of triumph in the 1960s, then became a rallying cry for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s and more recently one of Bart's catchwords on "The Simpsons." Whatever other qualities the word has, it certainly possesses durability.

Other words never travel far from their origins. The plangent "quango," for "quasi-nongovernmental organization" or an administrative body not part of the government but funded with public money, originated in Britain in 1973. Despite its fortuitous echoes of "quandary," "quagmire," and "tango," it has not successfully crossed the water.

Others simply drop out altogether. One consequence of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is that 1975's "refusenik," for a Jew refused permission to emigrate, now survives only as a historical reference.

We can wonder whether "break dancing" from 1982 and "lambada" from 1988 may already be headed in the same direction as the "Lambeth Walk," the hit dance of 1937. Will the hip-hop "phat" for "excellent" from 1992 last any longer than "tubular" from 1982 (from surfing, a hollow, curved wave, and thus "wonderful")?

English is a fertile soil, but not all the shoots that spring up survive the heat of the day.

Each decade throws up its distinctive slang expressions and historical referents. Some remain, but most go into the custody of lexicographers. Keep your eyes and ears open.

*John E. McIntyre is chief of the copy desk at The Sun, in Baltimore.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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