The words of our times

Voltaire’s “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms,” or a variation thereof, has been one of my favorite sayings since my freshman history teacher in college wrote in on the board the first day of class.

I usually think of it in terms of debate — the maneuvering done to ensure it is contested on one’s own terms.

I had a pair of frustrating debates online over the weekend — although given their arguments were the same and they had other similar characteristics, I can’t guarantee it was two different people — because they refused to address the question I presented.

Instead, they wanted to converse on different terms, probably because they knew they’d lose on mine.

But our words can also tell us a lot about the times we live in.

I learned about Merrimack-Webster’s Time Traveler — a cool feature that lists words with first appeared in print the year you were born — from my boy Poopsie. However, I was surprised to see one of the words from when he was born in 1980 was “NIMBY,” as in people responding to proposed development by saying “not in my backyard.”

Although the concept may date back to the 1950s, upon further thought, NIMBY showing up in the early 1980s started to make more sense. I don’t know if this is exactly true, but it seems logical that people whose houses were built during early waves of suburbanization would object to more building near them right around that time.

As for my wife’s and my birth year of 1972, what stood out to me immediately is that it must have been a time of upheaval in the language people used to describe each other.

Consider that these words all appeared that year: “anchorperson,” “cochairperson,” “Congressperson,” “Latina,” “layperson,” “newspeople,” ‘spokespeople,” “stuntperson,” “women’s studies.”

Obviously, there had been anchors of newscasts, members of Congress, people of Latin heritage, performers of stunts and so on before that, but the language must have assumed that they were all men.

(Taking it a step further, when my school, Utica College, founded a women’s resource center in 1990, my freshman year, it was named the Womyn’s Resource Center. It also marks Womyn’s Herstory Month.)

There was considerable progress in 1972 toward what are now the ubiquitous bar codes that come with shopping for pretty much everything but produce, hence the arrival of the “Universal Product Code.”

The UPC is pretty “user-friendly” … yup, also 1972.

“Alternative medicine” and “veggie burger” are also 1972 words … further signs of the times, perhaps? I’m guessing that games of “Ultimate Frisbee” may be followed by “beer pong,” even today.

It was the year of “bag lady” (a bit of a surprise), “blaxploitation,” “blended family” and “brain dead” … “cardiopulmonary resuscitation” (we know it as CPR), “EMT” and “non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

“Jury nullification” had been going on for years before there was a term for it. People had “bipolar disorder” and “multiple personality disorder,” too, and I hope that developing terms for them also meant better treatment.

Lew Alcindor (you now know him as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led to the NCAA banning the dunk in 1967, but “slam dunk” didn’t show up until five years later.

I have no idea what “major histocompatability complex” is — apparently something to do with genetics.

How did you sell stuff you didn’t want before a “yard sale”? Was that only done at garage sales?

And finally — there are a lot more — you may consider yourself “woke,” but “woke” has been woke since 1972.

Take the Time Traveler for a spin. It’s fun!






One thought on “The words of our times

  1. Pingback: Decluttering the dictionary – A Silly Place

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