When words become endangered
When words become endangered
In the past, people used to travel by “horseless carriage”. Now, they travel by “car”. People used to flit “hither and thither”. Now, they “dash around”. There is even a special term for these words which cause younger people to look at you quizzically: archaisms. They don’t just sound funny, they also tell us a lot about changes in our culture. An overview of almost forgotten words.
Archaisms: Our old-fashioned vocabulary.
But how do we know if words are endangered? In Germany, journalist Bodo Mrozek has made a dictionary of endangered words. His view is that: “we can recognise endangered words because they now sound peculiar or awkward in a sentence.” Such words may have been trendy at one point, such as “the bee’s knees”, “tops”, “groovy, “spiffy” and “sweet”, all former synonyms for “great” / ”cool”. But why do some words and expressions fall out of use?
From the political arena to daily use
Just as society and politics have changed over the last few decades, language has also changed. Parents no longer call messy children “dirty Arabs”, as the generation brought up under the British Empire once did. And luckily children are no longer told to play with gollywogs, dolls based on black people. And since decimalisation in 1971, no-one pays with guineas, farthings or halfpennies any more.
Social roles have also changed in the 21st century - unmarried men no longer bear the title of Master, and nor are domestic maids common.
Old job titles die with the work
Now Key Account Managers and Big Data Scientists may pull the strings, but in the 19th century, blacksmiths held high economic and social positions. They created objects from iron and steel using hammers and anvils, large blocks of metal upon which objects were struck. But with only few blacksmiths and anvils left, these words are no longer required. Some other jobs have been made redundant by technological process, such as rat catchers, lamplighters and bus and tram clippies, who used to clip passengers’ cardboard tickets.
Linguistic and technological progress go hand in hand
Are you off to the pictures? People rarely say this any more when referring to the cinema. Buses were originally called omnibuses, from the Latin ‘omnibus’ - ‘for all’. But now the idea of public road transport is established and how many people still learn Latin?
Technical changes have also changed our vocabulary. Once significant long-distance calls across the pond can now be made at the click of a button - without the help of the switchboard operator. Even the term rotary dial is likely to be quite unfamiliar to the smartphone generation.
But sometimes some expressions undergo a renaissance. For example, queer has come back in the 21st century. But instead of meaning “peculiar”, it is now used to refer to sexual and gender minorities.
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