Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just Because You Can....

Name the last time you used the word “alacrity” in conversation, dear reader.
How about “supercilious”?
What about “staycation”? “Frenemy?”

As I type these last two, a little red worm burrows under the neat Times font on my computer screen. Little does my outdated laptop know, staycation and frenemy were both recently added to the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and I did spell them correctly. The Collegiate Dictionary used to separate itself from Webster’s Regular Dictionary by being chock full of words you needed to know to get into college. Now it is chock full of words college kids made up.

Of course, language adapts. Especially in our electronic society, word meanings shift and change with all the fluidity of a bumper car ride; I have explained “gay,” aka homosexual, to my grandparents, and “gay,” happy, delighted, bright, to my kids. Our tendency in recent years has been to imbue our language first with made-up words or phrases, use them for a while, then remake them with a sense of bitter irony or distain. “OMG” may have been clever text when first used; now it represents a self-deprecating, false or sarcastic enthusiasm.

This makes me doubt the staying power of “staycation.”

The head honcho guy at Webster’s, or at least the guy speaking to news outlets, claimed that certain words gained such widespread use in recent years they could not be ignored. Crocs sandals gained widespread use in recent years, too, and a dedicated band of us continue to ignore them. I bet you even money dear reader that within a few years Crocs will be synonymous with the Termites sandals craze of the 1980’s. Good riddance. (Even though Termites were very sexy for a 6th grader who wasn’t even allowed to wear lip gloss).

Words are not shoes. My question runs thusly: If we’re going to be making up words and tossing them into bona-fide dictionaries, can we come up with something a little less lazy than “staycation”? Most of the new words added consist of two perfectly fine if somewhat ordinary words brutally torn asunder, then jammed back together and sent out into the world like a soulless monstrosity. Words like “vlog” and “webisode” demonstrate our disturbing lack of collective creativity. Rather than digging a little deeper for some royal nugget of English’s French or Spanish roots, some buried gem of Latin syllable to polish up and refine to say exactly what we mean it to say, we pick up a few stray easy bits right off the top of our language. We’re cannibalizing what little vocabulary we use.

For a few months, the words wander through popular culture, showing up on “The Colbert Report,” in status updates for Facebook, and then, eventually, making their way into “real” media like “even the New York Times,” according to the eager Webster’s guy. If their plan is to continue to rate that paper as a pinnacle of proper language use, perhaps they should stop feeding it zombie-like versions of hybridized words. Some may say I’m too sensitive on the subject; that in fact, this is just part of the “green collar” culture (another added term) and does a fair job of reusing and recycling; words are renewable resources.

No. I prefer to see this doctoring of our words as short-sighted. Call it “Frankencabulary.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Remember family vacations of your youth? They began at an hour so early it could not be defined by clock time; it was still-dark, still-cool, damp-grass early. Dad paced in the driveway waiting for everyone to climb into the packed car so he could fly out of the city before a horde of other vacationers flocked like Nazgul to the highways. In our Dodge station wagon, the “way back” could be a place of privilege or exile, depending on the mood of driver. We used the open trunk bed as a bunk or a fort, a picnic spot for our Happy Meals, and a control tower for any trucker in our sight line on the highway, pumping our arms for a honk or pretending to talk on cb radios to warn the Bandit away from Smokey. All the while, Dad drove.

Twenty years later, seatbelts, i-pods and cup holders for each passenger ease some of the risks and boredom of long car trips. But the anticipation, the general discontent, the leg cramps and the group phenomenon of spontaneous punchiness remain. One other difference between the past and our recent trip up to Maryland for a cousin’s wedding: this time, the kids did most of the driving.

Husband and I, my sister and brother-in-law took turns shuffling between cars and zoning out behind the wheel while counting mile markers up and then back down I-85. Of course the wedding was beautiful, the bride delightful, the weather pleasant, yada yada yada. We met up with extending family and dominated the lobby of a Hampton Inn, playing Settlers of Catan and various card games under the blue glow of a perpetual lobby TV. At some point someone said “Oh, Sarah Palin just quit.” Then it was someone else’s turn to deal. We were in the family vacation bubble. News of the world just seemed far away, and minor. Making sure everyone had the right wedding clothes (one of mine forgot his, of course, good grief, kids these days, etc.) seemed much more pressing than the whims of Our Lady of Wasilla.

On the way home, driving again, the rest of the minivan napped as I tried to make time through North Carolina. As one gets older, I’ve noticed, one begins to appreciate sleep. Sleep becomes an event. One even reminiscences on great naps of the past (that one time on the back porch) or plans how to maximize a sleep experience in the future (I’m going to try tonight with some white noise in the background). As a kid, sleep was just something that happened to you, uncontrollably, and not fully with your consent.

But naps in the car while Dad drove were some of the best naps ever. That little bubble of safety, your family all within arm’s length, your sister’s head nodding gently on your shoulder. Leaning on a pillow propped on the vibrating car door, each exhale made a little cone of haze on the window. On this trip, I checked the rear view mirror more than a few times, keeping an eye out for Smokey and watching my parents sleep as I drove them home.