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John-Patrick Thomas
John-Patrick Thomas

How Past Generations' Slang Became Today's Vocabulary

John-Patrick Thomas
John-Patrick Thomas

Boomers, Generation X, millennials—every 20 years or so we name a new generation. We characterize them by cultural shifts in fashion (bell-bottoms!), musical styles (grunge!), and food preferences (kale!). But generations can also be characterized by language, as seen in a new book by Allan Metcalf, From Skedaddle to Selfie, out in November from Oxford University Press. The expressions that rise to prominence at particular times often reveal surprising things about who we are.

When the nation was young, members of the Transcendental Generation (born 1792 to 1821) had a spiritual, authority-questioning bent. They brought transcendental into the general vocabulary. They also, writes Metcalf, “bequeathed to the country its greatest and most successful word”: OK. First used by a Boston newspaper editor as an intentionally misspelled, jokey abbreviation of “all correct”—similar to the publishing industry’s term TK to indicate material “to come”—the expression took off during the 1840 re-election campaign of Martin Van Buren, who was also known as Old Kinderhook. His supporters set up OK clubs, jauntily suggesting he was “oll korrect.” Detractors quickly turned the new word around to criticize Van Buren (he’s “orfully konfused!”) and his predecessor Andrew Jackson (so illiterate he couldn’t spell all correct!). Eventually everyone forgot where OK came from, and it became an all-purpose staple.

After the Transcendentals came the Gilded Generation (born 1822 to 1842). They were “gilded” since they would witness great economic expansion. During the Civil War, they coined skedaddle as a mocking description of an enemy beating a “hasty and disorganized retreat.” When the Union army was defeated at the Battle of Bull Run, Southerners referred to the retreat as “The Great Skedaddle.” Northerners threw the insult right back: A newspaper report called it “a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger.” This made-up word with a silly sound brought a little levity in dark times.

Born around the upheavals of war, the Missionary Generation (born 1860 to 1882) became idealistic, politically active adults. They gave us sweatshop in their fight for workers’ rights. Not all new words were so serious: The Missionaries also gave us fan. In 1885, a sportswriter was compelled to explain that fan was “base ball slang” for fanatic. That explanation soon became unnecessary.

The Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900) had to contend with World War I as they came of age. They seemed to have lost their way spiritually and, according to their elders, morally. They filled the Roaring ’20s with words like flapper, speak-easy, and jazz—and they were also the first to use sexy. According to Metcalf, “until the 20th century, nobody was sexy.” At first the word described risqué content or temptations—like “sexy” magazines, books, or plays—or the feelings they might inspire. Later it became an approving way to describe a person, and anything generally exciting.

The GI Generation (born 1901 to 1924) fought World War II or stayed home and rationed, scrimped, and saved to help the war effort. People started to smuggle home their restaurant leftovers to give to the family pet. “And so to prevent loss of napkins, or perhaps to encourage patriotic frugality,” restaurants started providing doggie bags.

Trick or treat came from the Silent Generation, born during the Great Depression. Characterized as sedate and ready to conform, they became bobby-soxers and wore gray flannel suits, but as kids they coined the common Halloween request, which was a bit more polite than the previous “Shell out!”

Tooth fairy took flight with the Boomer Generation (born 1943 to 1960), who also gave us hippie, yuppie, psychedelic, and groovy. They lost their baby teeth in a time of optimism, prosperity, Disney films, and Tinkerbell. A fairy-run cash-for-teeth scheme made perfect sense (the going rate then was 10 cents a tooth). A generation can also reinvent an old word. Fun was a noun long before the slackers and hackers of Generation X (born 1961 to 1981) existed, but their generation turned it into a full adjective, injecting it into “a fun time,” “a fun call,” “a fun concert,” and the wealth of other types of fun to be had.

Most recently, the so-called Homeland Generation (born 2005 and later) has been doing something different with wait, using it for statements and questions alike. Metcalf noticed his grandson saying things like, “Wait ... where are we going?” and “Wait ... I’m going over to the neighbor’s house.” It’s both a pause and a request for attention, and it’s “reminiscent of [Metcalf ’s own] Silent Generation’s thoughtful approach to the world.” Is the newest generation articulating a distinctive way of viewing the world? It’s too early to tell, Metcalf concludes: “We’ll have to wait.”

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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