Monday, September 17, 2012

Old Words

I have always thought that language is very interesting. I am interested in how people speak, how they convey meanings through language, and how those meanings are socially constructed and understood. In this era of mass participation in social media, the collaborative and interactive components, now possible not just through conversation but also through technologically mediated interactive written text, images, audio, video, and animations, have superseded the old top-down forms of communication. Even the traditional media -- newspapers, radio, magazines, and books -- have websites with online reader forums.

Language is changing, and we are changing the ways, for what, with whom we use language. Because we are living through this change, it might seem unremarkable to us; it's just what we do every day. Many of us embrace our new electronic devices, smart phones and tablets, with glee, and take for granted each new change without giving much thought to the social impact of it. The changes are incremental, and so we fail to notice that the associated linguistic and social change is happening, in fact, at whirlwind speed.

I am a member of the generation that can say, "I remember when the only computers were mainframes and they took up a whole city block, and you had to use card readers to interact with them." Or, "I remember when we communicated with friends and family in other towns by writing letters, because telephoning long distance was too expensive." And even, "I remember when we had a party line, and you could tell when the neighbour picked up to listen in, because you could hear a little click on the line."

We've come a long way baby, in a very short time.

One indicator of the change is the bloating of common vocabulary with new words (interface, mash up, online, blog) and old words given new meanings (texting, tablet, forum, web). Equally interesting are the old words that are disappearing from common usage, or that have taken on new, very different meanings. Here are some on my list:

Rubbers (for feet)
Thongs (for feet)
Bough (of a tree)
Gay (as a mood)
Shorts (as in men's underwear)
Trunks (for swimming)
Rubber pants
Stem Christie
Grub (to eat)
Fag (as in cigarette)
Grubby (dirty)

Well, I seem to be on a clothing theme at the moment. My point though, is that there are many everyday words that have now slipped out of common usage. They sound quaint or archaic. I have included both formally accepted words here, and slang, which tends to change more rapidly. Can you think of some old words that are on he verge of disappearing to add to this list?

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