Keep up with the Language
May 08, 2017 • Filed in:Tips for Authors
Our language is continuously evolving. It behooves you as a writer to keep up with the changes.
For example, take punctuation. We no longer use commas to separate things like junior or senior from names. Now you write John Doe Jr. The same thing applies to the commas we formerly used to separate Inc. or LLC from the names of businesses. You now can write Unilever Inc. or Rapidsoft Press LLC.
We no longer use periods for most abbreviations. The old sq. ft. for square feet becomes sq ft without the periods. One exception is the abbreviations for time of day: a.m. and p.m. It would look strange to write a.m. as am because it would look like the verb. (“At 7:00am am I going to the store?” simply looks and sounds wrong.) Some people duck this issue by writing the times without the m—seven o’clock in the morning becomes 7:00a and, in the evening, 7:00p. Take your pick.
Words are also changing. About forty years ago, William Safire wrote that the British word pricey had nearly driven the word expensive from our language. Around 1984, another word, spendy, tried to replace pricey, but failed to do so; it never sounded right to me. Its use is confined mostly to the Pacific Northwest. Pricey was first used in 1932, whereas expensive dates to 1610. Language sometimes changes slowly; other times, quickly.
Another British term that has crept into American English is spot on. I first saw this term in a 1978 letter from a British collaborator in a UFO investigation. “Your analysis was spot on,” he wrote me. It means the same thing as exactly right. Today in America, we commonly use the British term spot on.
Nowadays, we are rapidly replacing traffic circle with its British equivalent, roundabout. Don’t listen to the revisionists who try to tell you that there is a real difference between the two things. There isn’t. Well, there is one difference, and one only: on a roundabout the traffic moves clockwise, because the Brits drive on the left side of the road, whereas on a traffic circle the traffic moves counter-clockwise. This difference has proved fatal to many an American tourist driving a rental car in England. Americans do fine so long as they are on a straight road, but when they get to a roundabout, they instinctively turn to the right side—with predictably dire consequences.
A particularly picturesque British word that we’re beginning to embrace in America is gobsmacked. I first saw it in Eric Clapton’s memoir, Clapton. It means flabbergasted, astonished, rendered speechless. Dating to ca 1959 around Liverpool, it derives from struck (smacked) in the mouth (gob: Irish/Scottish Gaelic) and is believed to come from the theatrical gesture of clapping a hand over one’s mouth. Safe to use in dialogue, but you’d probably best not use it in formal writing.
Then we have mojo, a home-grown word. Believed to derive from ancient African traditions, it means a magic spell or charm. We use it broadly now to mean magical power. A good tennis player works his mojo on the courts. Preston Foster popularized the word with his song, “Got My Mojo Working.”
New words crop up continually. Keep your eyes and ears open and you can pick up many of them for yourself. Check the new words section of the Oxford English Dictionary. More than 500 new words have been added to the first quarter 2017 edition of that dictionary.
We are fortunate nowadays to have Internet dictionaries that keep up with trends like these. Language is not a static thing; it changes constantly. Keep up to speed!