Wendy Lesser

It is a common narcissistic fantasy to believe that the world as we know it started with our own birth, and that prior to our appearance all was darkness and antiquity. My particular generation – located at the heart of the baby-boomers, roughly midway between President Clinton and Madonna – has taken this tendency to an extreme. We would be likely to believe that no one before us had argued for school desegregation, worried about the apolitical masses, lived in split-level houses, used automated tools, got sick because of mislabelling, got well because of tetracycline, slept on Posturepedic beds, favoured clitorial sex, laughed at Scientologists, mocked Interpol, complained about wolf-whistles, turned from the vomitous rubberiness of US cooking to the splendeurs et misères of tapenade, consumed hallucinogenic drugs, taken over multi-use college buildings to protest unjust wars, or elsewhere indulged in a widespread habit of loud public gabbiness.

And, lexicographically speaking, we would be right, for every word of over two syllables used in that last sentence first entered the English language in 1952, the year I and my narcissistic coevals were born. You might have had some of the same thoughts in 1951 or earlier, but you would not, apparently, have been able to express them in precisely those terms. The words that were to define ‘modern life’ for my generation arrived on the scene just as we did.

Or so says my new OED on CD-ROM, a toy I acquired mainly to pursue this kind of tantalising if pointless personal-cum-sociological inquiry. The conversion of the personal into the sociological is itself a sign of my times, resulting in countless unlovely and blessedly shortlived neologisms, including 1952’s pigmenitocracy, lexicostatistics and – my favourite, courtesy of Talcott Parsons – socializee. Like all social-science terms, these mean exactly what you think they do – a ruling class made up of those of one skin colour, a branch of linguistics to do with dating languages, ‘one who is being socialised’ – and yet refer to nothing that is in any way recognisable as human experience.

The game requires that you place firm faith in the OED’s dating procedures, and that’s not always easy to do when you can almost remember using the word before they found it in print. Still, if you give them the benefit of the doubt and agree to accept the OED’s 1952 dates as readily as you do those for, say, 1592, you can draw some amazing conclusions about the extent to which language not only reflects but actually forecasts our daily existence.

Who would have guessed, for example, that the word hallucinogenic entered the language as early as 1952? The Summer of Love, after all, didn’t take place until 1967. It’s odd to think that all those day-glo-coloured, acid-trip-inspired posters, all those strobe-lighted happenings and Timothy-Learyesque pronouncements, were gathered there in embryo, like wishes breathed over our collective cradle, waiting until we were old enough to take advantage of them. Strange, too, that hallucinogenic the should appear in the dictionary the same year as beat generation, the about-to-be-new prepared to take over from the not-yet-old; or, in a similar vein, that desegregate should arise alongside apolitical, or Ms come hand in hand with wolf-whistle. Did anyone, in 1952, even imagine asking to be called Ms instead of Mrs or Miss? And yet there it is, drawn from a publication called The Simple Letter put out by the National Office Management Association in Philadelphia. ‘Use abbreviation Ms for all women addressees,’ the Letter proposes with wide-eyed if restrained enthusiasm. ‘This modern style solves an age-old problem.’ Eventually, maybe. But that was the last we were to hear of this solution until about 1970, when the OED locates it again – in the Daily Telegraph of all places.

I have to say that the OED’s choice of sources for its newly evolving words sometimes verges on the idiosyncratic, if not the eccentric. The Economist, for instance, would seem from the number of its citations to be on the cutting edge of lexical adventurousness. We also get early quotations from the Listener, the Guardian, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the venerable Times – periodicals not usually known for their instant investment in neologism. On the other hand, the OED readily acknowledges that the really new words often come from poets and novelists. In 1952, Ernest Hemingway was the first to weigh in with rubberiness, Mary McCarthy provided apolitical, Norman Mailer came up with porno (natch), Stanley Kauffmann – a novelist as well as a film critic – originated both gabbiness and vomitous, and John Betjeman was the first and, indeed, the only person ever to use the word plung (which the OED defines as ‘a resonant noise as of a tennis racket striking a ball’ and categorises, with some understatement, as ‘rare’). In general, 1952 was a good year for onomatopoeia: in addition to the Betjeman noise, it gave us boing, clonk, whomp and thunk (the latter only in the sense of ‘a sound of an impact, either dull or plangent’ in its earlier non-onomatopoeic sense, as the past tense or noun-form of the verb ‘to think’, it had already been used by Joyce in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake).

Not all the words that entered our dictionary for the first time in 1952 were new to the world. Some were just persistent border-crossers. Among these were tapenade (which, like hallucinogenic, had to wait decades to escape from the specialist manuals into more general menu-driven use), wok (whose earliest English incarnation was spelled wock), fartlek (a Swedish method of long-distance training), bouzouki (the Greek version of a mandolin), puukko (a type of knife used in Finland), don (in the Italian sense of a Mafia leader), and a load of French phrases, including blanc de blanc, musique concrète, tour d’horizon, and the ever-useful splendeurs et misères. At first I thought scuba must belong in this company (its linguistic texture, not to mention its subject-matter, struck me as distinctively Hawaiian, or perhaps Mediterranean), but this now-common noun turns out to have started life as an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Interpol, too, is an abbreviation (for International Criminal Police Commission), and why it took from its founding in 1923 to the early Fifties to get itself into the OED is one of those mysteries that its own agents are perhaps best qualified to solve. It is, for me, one of several words in this set that evoke with particular intensity the America of my youth – the America of Hitch-cockian thrills and McCarthyite terrors, of tumble-driers, split-level homes, and car or bicycle decals.

Like decal, which first appeared in a journal called Electronic Engineering, a number of the era’s key phrases took a while to emerge from the ghetto of technical obscurity. Xerox began as a trademark (listed by the US Patent Office in 1952), and so did Posturepedic, but in the Sixties both were showing up regularly in newspaper ads and articles, and by 1977, when the Posturepedic mattress slipped casually into literature (in Cyra McFadden’s The Serial), the xerox copy had become so ubiquitous as to lose, at least in daily usage, its proprietary capital. Some terms, however, never made it past that early stage: Vinylon, for instance, failed to get beyond the pages of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and the Textile Research Journal, though its inventors obviously hoped it would rival its two parents, vinyl and nylon, as a common household word; and stuccadore while it seems an efficient way to classify workers in stucco, hasn’t been heard from since 1978. The one I’m most sorry to have lost is peepie-creepie, which I think perfectly describes the sad, appealing, murderous voyeur in Michael Powell’s famous thriller, though the OED instead defines it as ‘a portable television camera used for close shots on location’.

Television was a new phenomenon at that point, and computers were barely visible on the horizon. Yet a number of the words we have come to associate with these machines – downtime, out of series, correlational, and others of that ilk – were ready and waiting to be used. Of these, the most interesting is scheduler, which now has both a television meaning (a recent New York Times article referred to network schedulers as the ‘stuntmen’ of the industry, because they pull off so many hair-raising tricks in their efforts to defeat rival programming) and a computer meaning (the OED’s second definition is ‘a machine, esp. a computer, that can arrange a number of planned activities in the order in which they should take place’). What strikes me as significant about this noun is the way it finally attributes agency to what had been viewed since the mid-19th century as a passively experienced condition. Though the word schedule (meaning ‘a slip of paper containing writing’) had been around for centuries, its timetable sense didn’t arise until shortly after the development of passenger trains, and that’s when the verb came into being as well. Beginning with its first appearance in 1862, virtually all the examples cited by the OED put the verb in its passive form: trains, trials and tennis matches are all scheduled by undesignated, mysterious agents, and even an archbishop who ‘is scheduled to speak at the Academy of Music’ seems to have no contact with the Higher Powers that do the scheduling. Only with the computer age do we discover the thing that actually does the scheduling; and only when this action has been assigned to machines can we also, in due course, attribute it to people.

If 1952 marked an era of regimentation (off-limits is another new phrase from that year), it also had its frivolous, sybaritic side, and not just among the Beat Generation. Bernard Malamud gave us the adjective nyloned to describe a sexy woman’s stocking-clad legs. People under 13 years of age went from being children to being subteens, with their own consumer clout, their own dating patterns, and their own James-Dean-like causes for rebellion. Partyness came in as a noun – but wait, no, that’s another trend entirely, for ‘partyness’ was apparently a direct transliteration from Lenin’s partiinost, referring to a Marxist sense of allegiance to the Party. This was no doubt the kind of language Mr Milton A. Smith was trying to defeat when, in his capacity as assistant general counsel for the American Chamber of Commerce, he coined the word bafflegab to describe confusing official jargon. Unfortunately for Mr Smith, his word succumbed to its own disease, leaving the perfectly good gobbledygook (introduced a few years earlier, in 1944) to do its work.

Some of my birthright words seem impossible to have done without for the first half of the 20th century. How is it that automate only emerged in 1952, when machines had already been doing human labour for decades if not centuries? The curious thing is that even automation, from which it derives, only showed its face in 1948. (You may have thought you saw the word earlier, in the 1669 edition of S. Patrick’s Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men, but that, cackles the OED, was just ‘a misprint for automaton’.) And how did we manage to do without tee-off, given that golfing and its verb ‘to tee’ had been around since the 18th century? Why did rubberiness have to wait for Hemingway, when Galsworthy came up with rubbery in 1907 and rubber itself, as a shortened form of the plant-product ‘India-rubber’, dates back to 1855? If gabby has been an adjective since 1719, and gab a noun since 1300, why did we need Stanley Kauffmann to give us gabbiness?

Other words I wish we had done without. Even before checking the citations, I got chills when I read the word megaton. (My chills, however, can’t always be trusted: I also got them from the word pre-nuclear, but that turns out to be a grammatical term, with no reference whatsoever to bombs.) Provirus, with its antiphonal pre-echo of the Aids-connected ‘retrovirus’, also made me nervous. But the word that, when I looked it up, yielded the deepest and most unexpected melancholy was the odd little word hoochie. At first I assumed it was another onomatopoeic sound, or else (in concert with coochie, perhaps) part of a sweetly dated phrase, like the charming creepiepeepie. But when I read the definition, I discovered it was military slang for an insubstantial or temporary shelter or dwelling, probably of Asian origin: in other words, a hootch. That word I recognised. So I was no longer surprised – only saddened, appalled, ashamed even after all these years – when I got to the 1969 citation from Time magazine: ‘Calley’s men in less than 20 minutes ignited “hootches” and chased all the villagers ... into groups, and shot everyone.’ That, too, is part of my generation’s collective vocabulary.