Words change over time, but what about their meanings?

Monday, May 6, 2013 - 11:23

If something was “cool” back in the 1960s, is it equally “cool” today? I’m no expert in etymology — the study of languages, words and their origins — but I’ve always found it fascinating how our language changes and evolves over time.

The exclamation of something being “great” has certainly morphed with time. For instance, when my sister was in high school back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, things were “keen” and “swell.”

The term “cool” popped up in the 1950s and lasted throughout my high school years in the 1960s, along with “bitchin” and “groovy.” “That’s boss” was alive and well in the 1960s.

As I think about it, “cool” is about the only expression that seems to endure today. As far as I can determine, its use between adults and children is about equal. Imagine, an expression lasting half a century!

In the 1970s we heard “mind-blowing,” “right on,” “bad,” “phenomenal” and “far out.” A common greeting was “what’s happening?”

The 1980s brought us “radical” (or “rad” for short), “gnarly,” “righteous” and “bodacious.”

The 1990s ushered in “awesome,” “back in the day,” “wassup,” and “word.”

In 2000 we coined the term “sweet,” apparently going beyond “cool.” The word “like” seemed to infiltrate just about every phrase, along with “not!” Used thusly: “I like him…NOT!”

In 2010 we encountered a lot of abbreviated language that came from communication technology, such as texting. Examples: OMG (oh my God) , LOL (laugh out loud); SUP (what’s up?), HBU (how about you?) and GMAB (give me a break).

As we often have difficulty getting into the complex language used by Elizabethan England writers like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, I wonder if those venerable bards could understand a text message between today’s teenagers?

One of the recent language trends I’ve noticed is that when someone answers a question, they begin with “so…” It’s a nice segue to an answer, but I never noticed it as much as I have in the last year. It’s really not that far afield from former President Reagan’s “well,” when beginning a sentence.

I’m not inclined to pore through the dictionary looking up new words, but I suspect each year there are thousands of new ones added, mainly because of advances in science and technology.

Here are just a few new English words added in 2012: “underwater,” meaning having, relating to, or being a mortgage loan for which more is owed than the property securing the loan is worth; “cloud computing,” the practice of storing regularly used computer data on multiple servers that can be accessed through the Internet; “earworm,” a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind; and “gassed,” a slang word meaning drained of energy.

It’s no surprise that our language needs to grow and evolve along with our population’s cultural changes. But it makes me wonder if in the future we’ll abandon sentences and paragraphs and communicate with acronyms and other abbreviated language.

If you’re familiar with the military, you know they’ve already begun to make the transition, as have large private companies. They have lists with acronyms numbering in the thousands.



Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected].

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