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Some words we use every day have descended to us from thousands of years ago. Words like glimmer, glisten, gleam, glow and glad all come from a prehistoric root word, ghel, meaning to shine. Other common terms, however, are so new you wont find them in most dictionaries. For example, my Random House Unabridged Dictionary published in the early 90s contains no entries for internet, webpage, or search engine. 

Even so, some of todays unabridged dictionaries are twice as thick as those of a hundred years ago. Tens of thousands of new words have come into our language this century, terms which recall key events of the last ten decades and which reflect the temper of our times.

One of the dominant personalities in early twentieth-century America was Theodore Roosevelt, who left his mark not only on our history but also on our language. It was Roosevelt who invented the term muckrakers in 1906 to describe journalists who specialized in stories about real or alleged corruption. Old Rough and Ready also coined the phrase lunatic fringe, referring to extremists of all stripes. On a softer note, the teddy bear was named after this president, from a cartoon satirizing his fondness for big-game hunting.

The Teens of this century are remembered now for World War One, in which American soldiers were called doughboys, after the hard-boiled dumplings which so often made up their fare. With new weapons such the tommy gun (Thompson submachine gun) and Big Bertha, a great seige gun nicknamed for Berta Krupp, head of Germanys greatest munitions factory, it is no wonder that many of the doughboys became shell-shocked. (The same condition would be called battle fatigue in World War Two, and post traumatic stress disorder in the Vietnam era.)  On a more hopeful note--too hopeful actually--comes the word Pollyanna, after the naively optimistic character of that name in a 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter. 

The Roaring Twenties were dubbed the Jazz Age by that debonair debauchee, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And indeed the slang of jazz musicians from that decade has made its way into the popular mainstream. Their jive (from gibe, to taunt or jeer) included terms still common today, such as gig, cool, hip, and square.

The Thirties are popularly remembered for the Great Depression and the rise of organized crime. Though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, words such as speakeasy and bootleg remained commonplace throughout the decade. (In a speakeasy, of course, one should keep ones voice down, since illegal alcohol is being served; bootleg derives from the practice of hiding contraband inside of ones boots.) The term Mafia also came into common parlance in the 30s. Actually, this term originated in the 1870s, from a Sicilian word denoting courage or bravura. All that joblessless and lawlessness might make one yearn for Shangri-La, the remote paradise created by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. 

With the Forties came another World War, and we easily recognize words such as Nazi, Gestapo, and  blitzkrieg (lightning war) from their associations with the Third Reich. Even if you feel like youre catching a lot of flak, you probably dont have it as bad as those who encountered the real thing. Flak is short for FLieger-Abwehr-Kanone, anti-aircraft gun. (Nowadays football quarterbacks wear flak-jackets to protect their ribs from--what else?--the Blitz.)

On the Allied side, there are dozens of examples of soldiers slang from World War Two still in use today--though many of them are not printable here. Suffice to say calling a soldier a G.I. dates from this period, after the letters G. I. (Government Issue) stamped on most U. S. military equipment. And the soldiers trusty jeep is derived from another acronym, GP (General Purpose) vehicle. 

The bomb which closed out World War Two also inaugurated the Nuclear Era. The term fallout to describe airborne particles settling back to earth dates from this period. Of course, now the term has become generalized to refer to any unexpected or unwelcome aftereffects. The word megaton comes from the early fifties, measuring the power of nuclear bombs in terms of millions of tons of TNT. Two related terms from the same period are megadeath to describe mass destruction, and megabucks, to describe the costs of the expensive new weaponry. 

Societal fallout from the tensions of the Cold War began to emerge in the Sixties, when a counter-culture emerged among Americas youth. Interestingly, most of the terms we associate with the Woodstock generation--hippie (from hip), cool, groovy, even far out--were all borrowings that had been in use by urban musicians since the 20s and 30s. 

The Sixties also contributed a wealth of new terms in the sciences, such biodegradable and quasar (short for quasi-stellar body). The term cyborg (shortened from cybernetic organism) was popularized in the fiction of that decade, though the term was actually coined in 1948 from the Greek word kybernetes, "helmsman, guide." (The same word shows up in the motto of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. The Greek letters PBK are initials for the phrase, philosophia biou kybernetes, "philosophy, life's guide.")

The Seventies are probably best remembered for the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the Nixon presidency. With the first conflict came wide recognition of the term napalm (short for Napthene Palmitate), a jelly-like incendiary substance which was actually invented in World War Two. The Vietnam era recalls another sinister term, Agent Orange, an air-dropped defoliant (literally de-leafer) named after the orange-striped drums in which it was stored. From Nixons Watergate scandal, of course, comes our habit of tagging any national scandal as Filegate, Travelgate, Zippergate, etc. It remains to be seen if Microsofts current anti-trust problems will later come to be known as Gates-gate.

The hippies of the sixties were replaced by the Yuppies of the Eighties, a term coined early in the decade for Young Urban Professionals. One associates the term trickle down theory with the Reaganomics of the 80s, but actually the term-- and the assertion that a robust economy benefits all classes of society--can be traced back to the 50s. The 80s also brought the first use of the term modem, short for modulator-demodulator, a device for transmitting data over phone lines which has led to a whole new internet vocabulary for the Nineties.

No one can yet say what phrases from the 90s will become a permanent part of our language. Apart from terms mentioned above, I believe that two likely candidates are new world order, used by George Bush to describe the post-Cold War global community. Other possibilities are ethnic cleansing and hedge funds, two current reminders that order of any sort is never a foregone conclusion. 

These are only guesses, of course. It was the Greek playwright Euripides who observed 24 centuries ago, What we look for does not come to pass; God finds a way that none foresaw.

Recent Publications

The Way We Word 





KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names


DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks



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