Friday, September 4, 2009

My husband, Charlie, has a habit . . .

of picking up any old book (and there are hundreds)lying about and reading it. This morning he picked up Webster's Elementary Dictionary: A Dictionary for Boys and Girls, revised 1956. It had belonged first to his older sister, Carol Anne, and then to him. And Charlie, being Charlie, had hung on to it, boxing it up, unpacking it, over a score of moves.

He came in just now to read me the first entry in the "New Words" section. It was "A-bomb." The third new word was "ack-ack" (an antiaircraft gun; also the noise of said guns). Down the line was "airsick."

It struck me rather forcibly that one can't come up with a better way to reflect cultural shifts than the shifts in that culture's language. In 1956, boys and girls needed to accept the existence of bombs and airplanes. Later in the "New Words" came bebop, bucket seat, calypso, cloverleaf, flying saucer. . . You get the idea.

Just for fun, I looked up today's new words (as listed in Webster's Collegiate). Among them, I found "mouse potato," (is that visual or what?), "drama queen," "big-box," "gastric bypass," "acquascape." Which says to me, as a culture, we're tending to be glued to our computers, indulgent of our emotions, either uncreative or bargain hunters as consumers, riddled with obesity,and more aware of what's under water.

Anyone who's been in an essay, journaling, or blogging workshop with me, knows I listen to (and now work in) public radio in large part because I love the respect public radio has for language—how carefully it pays attention to words, those ever-evolving reflections of reality. Story edits are all about exact word choices—because choosing one word over another, even when the difference in meanings is very subtle, can monkey around significantly with accuracy.

Our culture is ever-changing. Our language has to change with it, don't you think, or else we loose the ability to communicate with each other about reality; about exactly what is going on in this sweet old world.

No comments:

Post a Comment