What is it that defines the language of the moment? Words, actually. However short its life, each word also has a tale to tell about the environment into which it was born.
"Larpers and Shroomers" selects a single word born in each year of the 20th century and the opening years of the 21st, for an interesting look at the evolution of words.
It should be noted that the author covers English words, only, which is one of the shortcomings of the concept, but that takes nothing away from the fascinating inventory of ideas-in-word-form. Of all varieties.
Each word says something about the preoccupations of the time, including demob, in 1920, racism, in 1935, Big Brother, in 1949, beatnik, in 1958 and toy-boy, in 1981.
This year’s word du jour: chavs, or, folks with council estate chic. Virtually unknown until this year, it’s roughly the Brit equivalent of ghetto fabulous.
Chavs had some stiff competition, among them movieoke/cineoke (film clips version of karaoke) and retrosexuals - men who spend as little time and money as possible on their appearance.
Some words are a direct result of political events or themes: Big Brother (1949), Watergate (1972), Molotov cocktail (1940).
Others describe or reflect cultural or artistic trends, such as punk (1974), blues (1912), love-in (1967), or words that came into being due to a specific artistic creation, like Mickey Mouse (1939) or Trekkie (1976).
There are words hatched to describe technology and its impact on our environment, like virtual reality (1987), URL (1992) and cyborg (1960), and words that capture frivolous obsessions, like Botox (1994) and It-girl (1968).
Some became placeholders for a certain period in time, like U-boat (1916), while others stuck around to become common-use words: bagel (1932), fast food (1951), avant garde (1925), kitsch (1926) and teddy bear (1906).
Author Susie Dent includes some headscratchers along the way. Like sex, as if no one had discovered it until, as she has it, 1929.
There might also be wailing and gnashing of teeth among hipsters this month, as the ghastly truth comes out – hip, as a descriptive term, was hatched – not in the last few years, but 100 years ago, in 1904.
Same difference for Generation X, which puts in an appearance as a wordling way back in 1954. Then again, one can say the same for hippies (1953); they might have been the first to fly Psychedelic Airlines on acid (1966), but their progenitors were smoking spliffs way back in 1936. Although this doesn’t explain anything...
Other inexplicables: we’ve got the mobile putting in an appearance in 1986, which is about right, but when did the concept ‘mobile phone’ first show up? In 1945. And buzz, as a concept, has been buzzing around since 1942. That, and subway/metro doesn't put in an appearance at all. Nor does feminism. Or netiquette. Or road rage.
Blocks of words are almost a history primer in brief: the 80s, for example. What shows up on Dent’s list? Power-dressing, hip-hop, beatbox, and lattes, giving way to dot-commers, bling-bling, applets and google in the 90s.
But...chavs? What happened to flash mob? Politikino? Sync?
Or, gawd knows, blog?
Indulge in some late-night lexpionage: Word Spy
Find more real-life odd news, in the OCT/NOV issue of "Arte Six".