I’m old enough to ignore the latest trends in piercing sites, heel heights and iPhone model numbers. Not that I cared that much when I was younger. But one thing I figured I’d always know is the latest words, or more likely, the latest meanings people give old words.
And I thought I did know until last fall, when I came home from a nine-week trip to Europe. It started with woke. For as long as I can remember, woke was the past tense of wake. But an article I read in New York Times referred to a teenage girl as a “woke genius.” A genius who’d been asleep? I figured it had to be a typo. Even the venerable Times makes mistakes. But when I heard a reporter on National Public Radio days later describe someone else as woke, I started to wonder if flight AA8637 from Madrid had landed in the wrong country.
So I went to Merriam-Webster online. While I was clambering through castles and cathedrals, Americans evidently decided to use the past tense of wake to mean “attentive to issues of…racial and social justice.” For folks like me who were still confused, Webster threw in a quote referring to Brad Pitt as woke for producing the “upcoming movie Moonlight.” Moonlight was released more than two years ago. So much for using Europe as an excuse. It was high time I woke up.
As if that wasn’t enough to throw me into a funk, the Times did it again the next week. This time it was “nonbinary.” I vaguely remember learning nonbinary in college. It had something to do with zeroes, ones and computers.
In the Times article, people were nonbinary. I consulted the hip Urban Dictionary, which informed me that nonbinary folks consider themselves neither male nor female. Geeky, but something I suppose I can live with, which I can’t say for what came next. The Urban Dictionary went on to say that nonbinary people go by “they” or “them,” even when there’s only one.
So now we ignore the rules of pronoun agreement to be politically correct. Why not make our lives easier and just scrap all the rules of grammar?
Come to think of it, that’s exactly what poet e.e. cummings did when he wrote the likes of “next to of course god america i” and “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I adore e.e. cummings’poems. So do millions of others. Maybe a dozen adore mine. a lesson there’s I should here learn.
Soon after the Times made me question my grasp of my native tongue, I happened to read an interview in Runner’s World. The writer asked a runner if she preferred a wave or a “dap.” I couldn’t even guess what that one meant. Neither could Webster, which should have made me feel better but didn’t. I’m a runner for Pete’s sake. If I understand every word of just one magazine, it should be Runner’s World. Once again, I turned to the Urban Dictionary, which described a dap as a handshake involving palms slapping together then pulling apart with a snapping sound. I’ll be sure to use it whenever I write about a handshake involving palms slapping together then pulling apart with a snapping sound.
The newfangled word meanings that irk me most are those that replace perfectly good words like “unpack.” I have nothing against unpacking suitcases, boxes or trunks. But these days, teachers unpack lessons. Presidents unpack economic agendas. Nutritionists unpack diets. Whatever happened to teach? Present? Explain?
Sometimes the trendsetters delete words for no apparent reason, like the “away” we used after “passed” to mean died. Maybe I spent too many years in school, but the first time someone told me a loved one had passed, I thought she meant an exam. Maybe her loved one had earned his truck-driver’s license, maybe a teaching certificate. I was about to offer my congratulations when I noticed the look of sorrow on her face. Thank God we weren’t talking on the phone.
Then there are the words that grate on my Catholic-girl nerves. In my book, people don’t call a friend an ass any more than they call a friend bad. So, naturally, I was taken aback when a woman I consider a friend introduced me as a badass. It took me a minute to realize it was a compliment, meaning she thinks I run fast. Oddly enough, it would have been an insult if she’d left off the “bad.”
I might not care for the latest lingo, but I’m sure I’ll throw it into conversations, if only to give the impression that I’m no old fogey. And if you do something admirable, something hard, something that takes guts, I’ll pay you a compliment. But I sure as heck won’t call you an ass.