American Vernacular 2014
By Village Idiom
Languages are living things; they grow, evolve, and reproduce regional dialects. That’s why when it’s no longer used it’s called a dead language. Words are that way, too. In Japan there’s an old tradition known as kotodama, the spirit of the word. They are born, used for awhile, then die away. No one talks about buggy whips anymore, unless you’re in New York’s Central Park. I’ve been watching this process most of my life. A noun will become a verb, like parenting, although this usage came into being long after I was childing. A verb can also become a noun, as in something being a disconnect.
New words and expressions arise to do the job of language — to convey meaning, and with the speed of the internet they spread quickly. Bankster, hatriot, talibangelist, skackademic, these are self-defining. I like the word repurpose. You’re getting additional use from some article before you recycle it. We don’t drink water or juice now, we hydrate. That one comes from athletics, but on a hot day I heard a mom tell her little boy to drink his juice, “You need to hydrate.” That one strikes me as just silly. A locavore is one who tries to eat only food grown locally, or within maybe a hundred miles. An earworm is a commercial jingle or song you can’t get out of your head. In both music and advertising, this is intentional. They want it to stick in your head, that’s why it’s called a hook. Someone who is a frugal shopper in a bad economy is a recessionista. Crowdsourcing is one of the better ideas we’ve ever had, and allows people with an idea but no money to get financial backing. The frustration of looking for your baggage at the airport carousel is baggravation. A new dance craze, twerking, is bumping and grinding your lutessibles against your partner’s, except it’s not new at all. We were doing it (well, not me personally) fifty years ago, and then it was called the dirty bop. Biostitutes are scientists paid large sums of money by the fossil fool industry to deny climate change. Many of these swine were previously hired by big tobacco to claim that smoking wasn’t harmful.
Words or expressions with one meaning will be used metaphorically for something completely different. When a politician or public figure makes a fool of himself, it looks bad, and we call it bad optics. Uptick has taken the place of increase. A difficult task is now a heavy lift, and a simple one is low-hanging fruit. If you want someone to explain something a little more, you ask them to unpack it for you. Sketchy is something, or more often a person, of dubious or shady character, a little suspicious. In recent years we’ve seen new expressions like helicopter parents, who constantly hover over their child’s every activity. Creationism took a sketchy shift into something that sounds more scientific, intelligent design, but it still means the same thing. Job creationism is the false doctrine that by cutting rich people’s taxes, it will cause them to create more jobs. It’s that old supply-side delusion, a leftover from the failure of Reaganomics, unfortunately still worshipped by the Right. Bundling is what we used to do before going out in the winter. Now it’s a way to have your phone, cable, and internet bills in a convenient package. It’s also a way for banks to combine bad mortgages with good ones and sell them off to some sucker.
Many new expressions reflect the times we’re in. How in the hell can two mutually exclusive words like jobless recovery go together? Because Wall Street is doing just fine, thank you. Since Fukushima, three years ago now, we have hot rain on occasion. That means the radiation level is much higher than usual. It’s more prevalent on the west coast, but it’s increasingly happening across the country and elsewhere. Climate refugees are a result of global warming and its effect on populations, either through rising sea levels or drought. An active shooter is still involved in a mass killing, not yet apprehended. Now that smokers have become the modern lepers, they have to take their smoke breaks outside. Flirting with others during these breaks is called smirting. Have you heard of redshirting? It used to mean sitting an athlete for a year due to injury. Today, though, it’s what many affluent parents do with their children. They hold them back a year from beginning school, so they have both a mental and physical advantage. And here’s one that breaks your heart, telling a very sad story in just two words — foreclosure pets. Homeland is a truly detestable term that was hatched after 9/11. It brings to mind the Germans’ fatherland or the Russians’ motherland, and by its definition as someone native to some particular country, it has a built in anti-immigrant, xenophobic bias. I’m an American, goddammit, not a Homelander!
One new usage that really gets me is young men referring to their sexual organs as junk. That would seem to reflect a lack of respect for the power of sexuality. When I was their age, we called them the family jewels.
The computer age has brought us a galaxy of tech jargon. Remember surfing the net? A webtrovert is someone very active on the internet, and who freely shares their personal and private information. People who have never known a time without computers are called digital natives. Many of them are so comfortable with and dependent on this electronic landscape that they call physical reality meatworld. I’m not kidding. And of course there’s hashtag, or #, but I hear it’s a useful way to narrow searches to a central topic. I think you can guess what revenge porn is. That one tells its own story too, and it’s illegal in more and more states. Texting, sexting, and tweeting are an integral part of society these days. So is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2013 — selfie. You all know what that is, taking a photo of yourself with your mobile device, then usually sending it to someone. Former congressman and aptly named Anthony Weiner used to take photos of his “legislative package” beneath tight briefs, and mail them to young women. Can those be considered selfies? I say they can, since the guy turned out to be real dick.
Have you coined any new words or expressions? I’ve come up with a couple. A netwerp is what I call a computer nerd who spends all their time online. A chatter spends most of that time in chat rooms. And cattitude is the reason I love cats so much. If you like any of these, go ahead and pass them along. Meanwhile, watch what you say, and I mean that in a good way. Besides, then you’ll always know what you’re talking about — literally.