Bits of Books - Books by Title

From Skedaddle to Selfie : Words of the Generations

Allan Metcalf

An entertaining history of words invented by previous generations suggests that no one was sexy before the 1880s and that the millennials are failing to match their parents' high standards.

Deadline is a word that every journalist knows and dreads. But who knew that it was a foreign import, and a violent one too, from the American civil war? A deadline was simply a line in the ground at a prisoner of war camp; if a prisoner crossed it, they would be shot. At the trial in 1865 of the commander of Andersonville, a notorious confederate camp, a witness said: 'I have seen one or two instances where men shot over the deadline . . . I think the number of men shot during my imprisonment ranged from twenty-five to forty.' By the 1920s the word was repurposed, perhaps by an irate newspaper editor, to give its modern sense of a time limit.

Allan Metcalf, a professor of English at an American university, has come up with the entertaining conceit of looking at the words that each American generation bequeathed to common usage.

He starts with the 'Republican Generation' (those born between 1742 and 1760), who popularised the noble world 'unalienable' that rings out from the Declaration of Independence. He then sprints, maybe even 'skedaddles' - also made popular during the civil war; the hasty retreat of the Unionist army after the Battle of the Bull Run in 1861 was known by southerners as the Great Skedaddle - down the next 12 generations to the 'Homeland generation' born in 2005.

There are some gems among the 130 or so entries. In 1840, a newspaper claimed that the former president Andrew Jackson was so illiterate that he would mark OK on a document when he approved of it, thinking it was the correct abbreviation for 'all correct'. It was a wind-up, but OK still caught on.

While we might understand a 'dude' to be a decent chap ('I'm the Dude. His Dudeness, or, uh, Duder, or El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing,' says the Dude in The Big Lebowski), its original meaning was derogatory. An 1883 poem, The True Origin and History of 'The Dude', attacked foppish, Oscar Wilde reading young men. Dudes were the hipsters of the millennial Generation. No one was 'sexy' until the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) were in their pomp. Metcalf uses the example of 'Florrie' to show the new popularity of the word after the Great War.

She had caused some consternation by sending spanking fantasy letters to a newspaper. 'My only aim,' Florrie told the sexologist Havelock Ellis in his 1919 case study, 'was to give myself a nice sexy feeling.' The Lost Generation were a lively lot - they also gave us pep, jazz (nicked from baseball) and hip.

My generation's (Generation X, born 1961-81) gifts to language are disappointing: McJob, slacker, geek, nerd, dork and like (as in 'what you say when you're like, um, attaching one word to another, in a, like, sentence'). Would it be better to be a Boomer (1943-60) who gave us hippy, groovy, streaking (not so useful any more: like flashers, streakers seem to have disappeared), yuppie, gay (the non-jolly sense), self-esteem and helicopter parent?

If you want an excuse to berate youth, the millennials' (1982-2004) contribution would give you good reason: hashtag, LOL and selfie. It's hard to believe that the selfie, now so ubiquitous, was made possible only with the camera technology of the iPhone 4, launched in 2010.

This is a slim, intermittently entertaining, dippable book. How good? If you don't buy it, you won't suffer FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, a particular fear of the wired-up millennials) but it's better than an indifferent 'meh'. Meh, as millennials know, was first used by Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons in 1992.

More books on Words

More books on Frauds

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress