As an editor, I have to pay close attention to the way words keep evolving. I hate some recent changes but I love others.
First of all, there’s the way so many words these days begin their lives as friends, often seen together and hyphenated when they describe a noun. (He achieved policy-holder status by signing up for the insurance.) Then dictionaries decide to eliminate the hyphen, and presto! a new word—policyholder—is born.
English is getting more and more like German, with lots of very long words. I believe the Internet encourages this with its online addresses that run strings of words together. (To some degree, we’re adding to the problem here at silvercentury.org.)
At the same time, many words have been shortened for convenience and for texting. For instance, I can tell you that I get good vibes from veggies (I’m a vegetarian).
There’s another thing we do a lot these days: we bootstrap nouns into verbs. Sometimes I love this—it improves the language as long as the meaning is immediately clear. If a company overnights a package, or a would-be politician decides to primary an incumbent officeholder, everyone knows what’s going on. But to gift someone? When you could simply give them something instead? Why create a fancy alternative to a perfectly good, short word? It sets my teeth on edge.
I have two predictions for the future of words. First, there will be more short words as well as more long ones—we’ll need short words to catch our breath in midsentence. For instance, I believe that once there are many more people who are over 100, which there will be in the future, cents will become irresistible. No one’s going to want to spend five syllables (cen-te-nar-i-ans) on a commonplace noun when we’re tripping over other, very long words.
Which jibes with my second prediction: dictionaries will continue to erase hyphens and hitch shorter words together to make long ones. In the future, we may read statements like this:
Sally’s greatgrandparents are cents. They are superold and superintelligent, but they need longtermcare.
And BTW, this rant doesn’t even touch on what all those abbreviations, sprinkled everywhere on the Internet and crammed, cheekbyjowl, into textmessages, are doing to the language and our minds. OMG, IMHO, they’re a disaster.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.