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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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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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