Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Happy 50th birthday to these words (including two whopper profanities)

One of these days I’m going to revive my word history book proposal. The book is, “ZEITGUST! How Words Become Words and a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Dash at Dictionary Recognition.”

It’d be about the history of words, the introduction of the 60 or so words I’ve coined, and a series of daft stunts I’d pull off to try and insinuate my own coined words — particularly “zeitgust” — into popular usage.

The project drew enthusiastic interest but like so many of my other book proposals fell flat. Remember, the self-published crayons book that is becoming so popular with so many was rejected by more than 100 publishers with one, saying, “We like the book, we think it’s funny, but how are we going to sell a self-help book by a guy who seems incapable of ever even helping himself?”

So “Zeitgust” never stood a chance.

It’s too bad because zeitgust is a great play on zeitgeist that means: A contrived and deliberate act of trying to mass manipulate popular culture to an individual whim.

This all goes a back four or five years ago when, as part of the zeitgust book proposal, I became an on-line subscriber to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s hard to justify a $295 yearly splurge on a dictionary you can’t even hold, but I just love the way it enriches my communications. 

Not only does the OED word-of-the-day feature supercharge my vocabulary, it’s the only dictionary that allows us word sleuths to find out the exact history and meaning of words.

See, OED posts the exact year each word was deemed a word by the institution’s august editors. It is their intention to document every single word ever uttered

It doesn’t mean that’s the exact moment the word was coined, but it was when editors decided it had sufficient mass that it deserved publication among the 600,000 other words. By comparison, my desk-buster bound American Heritage Dictionary has a measly155,000 words.

I decided to make this 50th-birthday-for-words an annual feature when I discovered that the word “dipshit” was born the same year as I, which I’m choosing to consider a complete coincidence.

I’ll remember 1965 as the year two of the biggest swear words were born. That in itself tells you something about the era in which they were birthed.

I’d encourage word lovers to go back to previous years linked below. Lots of fascinating word origins from 50 years ago highlight how the culture was changing and many of the word origins don’t necessarily mean what you think.

bada-bing — This is the transcription of a sound made in an Italian comedy that morphed into something associated with Italian-American drama. “Bada-Boom! Bada-Bing!” is what Sonny Corleone says in “Godfather” when he shows Michael how to assassinate a rival. Then, likely with the line as inspiration, it was the name of Silvio Dante’s  Jersey strip where Tony Soprano and his gang planned so much of their felonious mischief.

biohazard — Ah, such simpler times were 1965. Say the word biohazard back then and people were scratching their heads. Today, biohazards are as much a part of the nightly news as water main breaks and weather reports.

bogart — I love when names become verbs and this is the name of one of our favorite actors. The definition is to force, coerce, bully or intimidate, just like Humphrey Bogart. Val and I love Bogie. It’s now famous from “Easy Rider” and the ’68 song that pleads we don’t bogart that joint. With marijuana becoming legal all around the country, there’s very little bogarting going on anywhere.

bong — Another counter-culture entry. The primary definition of “bong” used to refer to the deep resonant sound of a bell. No more. OED cites this 1975 “High Times” quote: “One hit of this weed produces creeping nirvana when smoked in a bong.” 

bubble wrap — Ah, who can resist the lure of the bubble wrap? There’s a hilarious “Curb Your Enthusiasm” involving Larry David, bubble wrap, and homicidal rapper named Crazy-Eyed Killer.

chartbuster — Words like this make me nostalgic for days when DJs were just as important as the music they played. It’s an era that pre-dates even me.

clunky — meaning stupid or inferior. One of the things I love about the lordly OED is it isn’t afraid to frolic in pop culture. The first usage entry here is from “My Three Sons.” “I can’t ask Mary Lou to do a clunky thing like that!” It doesn’t say whether that was Chip, Ernie or Robbie, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Uncle Charlie.

clusterfuck — Original meaning: “A sexual orgy. Also, “Mongolian clusterfuck.” I’m sorry the military in Vietnam corrupted this word because, to me, a clusterfuck always sounded like a great time. Score an invitation to a good clusterfuck and you’d circle the date on your calendar, get your haircut and maybe make a noodle salad to bring in case anyone gets hungry. Now, thanks to our misadventures in Vietnam, no one wants to go to a clusterfuck. That’s just FUBAR.

computeritis — The excessive use of computers. My question is: Who had computers back in 1965? This is an affliction that must have stricken just a handful of NASA engineers addicted to a beta version of the old Pong game. Today, it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t tethered to something computer like. I think we need a new word.

de-escalation — Words like this popping up tell me how Vietnam was coming to a boil. People were starting to look for ways to get the hell out of the quagmire. It was becoming a real clusterfuck.

Disneyfy — The word is considered a pejorative today, by me at least. I love Disney, of course, but I don’t like it when Disneyfication escapes the borders of Disney.

dooky — I know Green Day in 1994 released an album named “Dookey” that wasn’t crap, from what I understand. OED says the word meaning excrement is slang derived from doo-doo. But I never hear dooky used in that way. I like it.

fact check — Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Soviet menace, journalists were being asked to tackle a lot of important issues 50 years ago. How did they respond to ensure they were worthy of a skeptical public’s trust? They begin hiring what were called “fact checkers.” Today, it seems our fact checkers are among the first to go. I guess that means journalism and the world in general are a lot more stable these days.

free fire — Another war word that shows how much Vietnam was in the news. 

grunge — “A general term of disparagement for someone or something that is repugnant, odious, unpleasant or dull.” It was first used to describe a specific type of music way back in 1972 or about when Kurt Cobain was 5 years old. Incidentally, Cobain, who killed himself in ’94, would have turned 48 on Friday.

headcase — “A person whose behavior is violent and unpredictable; markedly eccentric.” A Mr. P. Townsend gets a nod with the illustrative OED line, “My name is Bill, and I’m a headcase. They practice making up on my face.” Know the song? It’s the Who’s “I’m a Boy.” I love that song.

jet lag — In 1965, traveling by jets wasn’t all that common. It is today. Still, most of us don’t travel by jet enough to experience that sort of fatigue. We instead have life lag.

log in — I’m always amazed that common computer words of today where around when computers were so uncommon.

Lose lose — I might be mistaken, but this seems to me to have a concept that came about because of the nuclear politics of the Cold War. Lose lose seems right out of Dr. Strangelove.

minidress — Risqué styles and hemlines on the rise in the mid-‘60s? Shocking!

moby — Did you know this is Brit slang for mobile phone? I didn’t. In fact, the more common usage is American slang for “large, great, impressive.” I didn’t know that either. But I like it! Short for Moby Dick, that legendary largeness is a cool word I’m going to try and start using, as well as become. Yes, my ambition is to one day be more moby, less dick.

mockumentary — I guess my favorite mockumentary is “Best in Show” about the dog show lovers or, of course, “Spinal Tap.” I’m not a big fan of the genre because it often comes across as mean-spirited to people who don’t really have it coming. 

motherfucker — I’m Facebook friends with author Greg Olear who a few years back wrote a great book called “fathermucker.” That still makes me chuckle, as do my recollections of Olear’s book. I have to think motherfucker’s been around a lot longer than 50 years and that prissy OED editors were just being proper English by omitting it for so long. And, of course, they blame the word on the brothers. “Esp. in African-American usage: used (chiefly in optative subjunctive and with no subject expressed) to express emphatic rejection, hatred, dismissal, etc., of a person or thing.” I tell my daughters there are no bad words, there are only bad times to say some words. That’s a bit of lie. I wouldn’t want them saying this word in public — unless it was part of a really motherfuckin’ funny.

multi-task — I’m so opposed to multitasking that I refuse to walk and chew gum at the same time. Multi-tasking is a curse upon our quality of life. Watching a good movie with multitasks is nigh impossible. They’re always missing a subtle glance or look. 

OD — Of course, there are some things that anger me more than multitasking. ODing is one of them. Oh, to have lived in the days when ODing was so uncommon there were no words for it.

overclass — “A privileged, wealthy, or powerful section of society.” Why did this word disappear? I love it. It’s seems very nimble, too. I’m going to try and use it in the blog right away.

parajournalism — “Journalism which is concerned with issues other than the reporting of factual information; journalism which treats subjects in a subjective, imaginative, creative, or personal way, or which engages with matters of speculation or opinion.” Fifty years ago and this needed to be defined for the very first time; 50 years later, and all journalism seems parajournalistic. Brian Williams is fighting to retain his parajournalistic credibility. 

puckerooed — “Useless broken, finished.” Another great word due for a soulful revival. This one originates in New Zealand. OED quote is just as colorful. Try and say it with Kiwi accent: “I come to see if you’ve got a spare shovel. Mine’s puckerooed and I got a cow in the drain.” Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

segregationist — Our Jim Crow racists didn’t consider themselves segregationists. No, this is a lawyer word. It shows, to me, how Civil Rights laws were playing out in the court with such frequency that the nomenclature of the movement was finally seeping into public consciousness.

Shake ’n’ Bake — Yes, the term referring to the food is now 50. That means enough of the world was eating S&B to make it worthy of mention. I like to think the Rodell family alone made it so. Every Wednesday night it was Dad’s turn to cook and every Wednesday night we shook, we baked. Can’t stand it today.

smart ass — I mentioned how “dipshit” was born the same year as I. So it makes sense that “smart ass” became well known enough for dictionary inclusion right about the time I began to speak.

space walk — Whatever happened to the glory days of space exploration? I dread the day “moon walk” turns 50 because I fear the first reference will involve Michael Jackson.

toodles — I have trouble bringing myself to say it, but it’s very cheerful goodbye. It sounds British to me, but OED blames US.

zamboni — All hail, Frank Zamboni (1901-1988)! There had to be a ton of stories about the Eureka, Utah, native and his death and you had to figure one of the most popular mechanical devices on earth was named after a man, but this is the first I’d seen it. I’m going to try and remember to blog about this later on some day when I’m stuck for a fun topic. Who doesn’t love a zamboni? Not me!

That’s enough word play for today. I’m all puckerooed.


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