Thursday, December 10, 2009

Evolution of words or intelligent design?

I noticed when I read novels depicting an earlier time, notably World War II and turn of the nineteenth century, that the slang or other words from the era have fallen out of use. Recently I started to notice that I'm just old enough to realize that in my own lifetime many words have fallen out of favor. I'm not talking about the obvious things like hearing someone say “Bees Knees” or one of the ugly racial slurs which were more common in earlier generations and, for the most part, have thankfully fallen by the wayside. Simple everyday words that you don't notice are gone until someone, often older than you, uses one.

The other day my family and I were eating at a pizza parlor, which are not called pizza parlors anymore, and when I refused a basket of rolls to go with a pizza, the waitress said, "Yeah, that would be a lot of starch." I can remember my mother telling me I couldn’t have pasta with chicken and mashed potatoes because it would be too much starch. When I was a kid we ate starchy things. With today's emphasis on more precise fitness terms starch is rarely an issue. Carbohydrates are frowned upon, but I haven't heard a nutritionist talk about starch in over a decade.

The word calisthenics meant push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks when I was in elementary school. Everyone moaned when we had to do calisthenics because it meant that we weren't playing football or kickball or anything else with the ball that was fun. I'm not sure one of the young trainers at the gym where I work out even know what the word “calisthenics” means. They work out, do aerobics, lift, host a variety of classes and will even do sit-ups, push-ups and jumping jacks but they never do calisthenics.

When I was in elementary school I remember asking permission to go to the lavatory. My speech recognition program doesn't even have lavatory listed in its dictionary. I have no issue with “bathroom” or “toilet” but lavatory also seemed a little more classy and interesting.

When we discussed a person who might be a little overweight one word we used was “stout”. It meant a thick, perhaps pudgy person. I liked the word but have only heard it used once in the new millennium.

One word, which may have passed out of use for social reasons is “Oriental”. I never heard it used in a derisive or degrading way but “Asian” has completely eliminated the need for the word Oriental. I'm sure I just don't understand the geographic and cultural subtleties between the two words. In a similar vein, I rarely see the word occidental. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever saw widespread use of the word.
What are some words or slang you haven’t heard in a while?


  1. Indians to native Americans

    Black to African American

    White to European American

    poor to urban

    It's part of all languages

  2. I was going to say I haven't heard "barf me with a spoon" much lately but Lacey's comment made me dig deeper:

    stewardess to flight attendant
    policeman to police officer
    fireman to fire fighter

  3. James O. Born12/10/2009 8:31 AM

    Lacey and Paty bring up good exam-ples.

    Patty , yours are all related to gender. As professions no longer seek specifically male or female applicants, titles change.


  4. One of my all time favorite phrases is "more hair than wit", which the Victorians used to describe a dingbat. I'm on a mission to bring it back ;-)

    In terms of changes, "waiter" and "waitress" have become "wait staff" or "server" in many restaurants.

  5. Stewardess to flight attendant is an obvious one.

    But the words I heard growing up that I rarely hear today are duty, honor and obligation.

    Sorry. I sound like an old man.

  6. Can I take this back a generation? My mom had an interesting vocabulary. It may have been her Canadian upbringing, or the tiny, backwoods fishing town (Big River) where she was raised, but I was constantly having to translate when friends were over.

    Of late, I have been collecting some of her more memorable ones. Off the top of my head:
    church key=bottle opener
    catawampus-this one I actually read a couple of years ago.
    quidnunc=a gossip


  7. My grandma still calls her couch a davenport and her purse a pocketbook.

  8. Funny. I was just going to say pocketbook. Billfold is another one. Dopp kit. Nylons....stockings....brassiere Mackintosh and topcoat and trousers. Hobo, tramp, bum, vagabond. Bohemian. My father said things were "keen" when he meant "cool". "Man, that's really keen." "Putting on the dog" Putting on the Ritz" . High-toned clubs, swanky, high-class. Perambulator, percolator, icebox. But the best to me is "chifferobe" (thank you Harper Lee)

  9. When's the last time you were called "the fuzz?"

  10. The last time my husband noticed I hadn't waxed.

  11. "Typing paper" had vanished by the time I was out of college. I wonder if "postage stamp" will last much longer.

  12. One that's rapidly exiting the scene: "telephone".

    *TVs used to be called "television sets".
    *Movies used to be called "pictures", especially by Hollywood types.
    *Ounces of marijuana used to be called "lids".
    *Where I came from (don't ask), a public bathroom was sometimes called a "lavatory", but more often "the basement".
    *Mixed drinks used to be called "highballs".
    *Phonographs used to be called "victrolas".
    "Bands used to be called "orchestras".
    *Hot dogs used to be called "frankfurters".
    *I used to be called "young".