Etymology is all the rage these days, it seems. Technology is a two-way street, and while ostensibly designed to shape and improve our future, invariably it’s also taken up to explore our past, and the quest for word origins and phrases has been aided immensely by technological developments in recent years. From Wiktionary to Google Ngrams, the ability to scan large swathes of historical texts and newspapers in search of the first documented uses of particular words and phrases – and to monitor their linguistic journey and adoption — has revealed a great deal not only about the words that we use but also about the people who use them. While some words appear to have had specific points of origin – ‘speakeasy’, for example (Kate Hester, a defiant Prohibition-era saloon-keeper in Pittsburgh), or ‘way!’ (Mike Myers, Saturday Night Live) – others seem to have had multiple spontaneous inventions (bobby-soxer, babysitter, 23 skidoo!).
But what’s truly interesting, argues Allan Metcalf in his etymological survey From Skedaddle to Selfie, is what these terms tell us about the particular generation that brought them into vogue (even if that generation didn’t necessarily invent or originate the term). Metcalf isn’t making an original argument here: he’s drawing extensively on the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, two researchers whose 1990 study, Generations, and subsequent work “would have us believe that all people born in the United States during a particular twenty-year stretch are alike in their attitudes toward life and toward the historical events they encounter.” These shared attitudes, the theory goes, distinguish them from other generations. Moreover, the notion holds that there are four basic generational varieties, which have been repeating themselves throughout Anglo-American history.
“The generations come in four varieties, they say, always in the same sequence: artist (adaptive), prophet (idealistic), nomad (reactive), and the greatest of all, hero (civic).”
There’s a lot to argue against in this sort of pop sociological generalizing, but much like star signs and personality tests, it also offers a lot of thought-provoking fun. In Metcalf’s From Skedaddle to Selfie, it offers an interesting spin-off for the etymology game: he builds on Strauss and Howe’s theories to suggest that the particular words, phrases and slang seized on and brought into prominence during particular eras reflect the attitudes of these generational varieties. Accordingly, his book offers a quick ride through the history of America’s linguistic generations, beginning with the hero (civic) minded ‘Republican Generation’ that founded the American Republic (comprised of those born between 1742-1766, and which tended toward such epic phrases as ‘unalienable’), and concluding with what is also (according to the theory) supposed to be a heroic, civic-minded generation, The Millennials (born 1982-2004), whose dubious contributions to saving the world include the phrases ‘FOMO’, ‘selfie’, ‘LOL’, and ‘sexting’.
‘Awk-ward’, as they too might say.
Yet the Millennials also produced ‘Occupy’, and as Metcalf points out, we’re only seeing the beginning of the Millennial impact on our society, and the results of their efforts to reshape the world and resolve its crises. The theory works in 20-year cycles, remember, and so that generation’s heroic struggle and crisis, “according to Strauss and Howe’s 1990 crystal ball, would begin in 2005, but it wouldn’t reach its climax until 2020 and attain its resolution in 2026. The Millennials still have a decade to show us the way.”
‘What-ever’ (as Generation X might say).
There’s also a brief mention of the emerging ‘Homeland Generation’ (born 2005 and later) but if Strauss and Howe are right, they’re intended to be a repeat of the ‘Silent Generation’ (adaptive), so let’s keep our fingers crossed for those Millennials.
This generational sociology is merely the organizing principle behind the book, and while it offers an entertaining framework, one gets the impression Metcalf himself treats it with a grain of salt. The more interesting part is the quick and dirty survey of word history. The entries are short, and far from complete (by Metcalf’s own admission), but they offer an interesting insight into the often uncommon origins of some of our language’s more common phrases and slang.
Much of it is re-trod ground, with which many will be familiar. Some entries are frustrating, in merely offering examples of different ways words have been used over the centuries, with little analysis or explanation of how, why or when they changed.
But other entries are interesting: the literal origin of terms such as ‘deadline’ (as a line in prison camps beyond which prisoners could be shot dead) and ‘carpetbagger’ (post-Civil War northerners whose cheap travel bags were made from, well, carpets); the origins of ‘jazz’ as a baseball term; and the shifting connotations of terms such as ‘sexy’ and ‘slacker’, for example. There are amusing anecdotes provided for many of the terms: the fact that ‘G.I.’ was considered politically incorrect and disrespectful of soldiers; or that the Chinese term ‘gung ho!’ owes its English popularity to an American military advisor assigned to support the Chinese communists in the ’30s. Of course, most of these terms can be explored in far greater detail in a quick perusal of the Internet, so it’s Metcalf’s argument that they reflect generational styles and attitudes, as well as the broad and sweeping (albeit cursory) nature of the study, that makes the book unique.
There are a few interesting examples of how slang can actually like enrich a language by, like, offering a new linguistic function. The term ‘like’ is a good example: one minute it’s a simple verb, and the next minute everyone’s like using it “to introduce not just what we said or thought, but how… the latter for the moments when we want to show as well as tell.”
Most interesting, perhaps, is the manner in which a survey of this sort plays up the contradictions in social attitudes toward emerging issues. The term ‘adolescent’, for example, elicited this 1901 description from Michigan schoolmasters: “There is accelerated physical growth always accompanied by an increase of intellectual activities and intensified emotional interests. This has produced great results, as reference to the world’s history will show. The world’s work has been largely done by the adolescent.”
Two generations later, Metcalf observes, society was terrorized by visions of teenagers, bobby-soxers (or worse yet, the ‘bobby-sox brigade’) and ‘juves’ (‘juvenile delinquents’). Far from being responsible for the world’s accomplishments, adolescents had become the greatest menace to society.
Yet the differences are not always as generational as they may seem. Against the idealism of the 1901 schoolmasters who believed “the world’s work has been largely done by the adolescent”, a Minneapolis principal in 1899 warned that “The teen age is the imaginative age and not much given to reason and judgment. The reins of community government are not safe in the hands of any save mature and experienced minds.”
While it’s easy enough to ascribe differences in attitude to generational shifts, the examples are not always sufficient to convince the reader that these differences are not merely differences in personal attitude, rather than generational zeitgeist.
Of course, Metcalf doesn’t claim they’re not. He admits the generational model is a blurry one, and seems less interested in upholding Strauss and Howe’s theory than in offering an entertaining survey of American etymology. His own generational biases become apparent, too: uncritically associating feminism with the Boomers, for instance; or suggesting that the only short-lived resistance to the proliferation of a gender-neutral ‘you guys!’ came from older Boomer-generation feminists (thankfully, resistance has surged from a more gender-inclusive contemporary generation, part-Millennial and part-Homeland, to use the book’s analytical framework).
From Skedaddle to Selfie is an entertaining book. Metcalf is an established scholar with a considerable contribution to linguistic studies under his belt (including several other books on language and word origins) but this is much simpler fare, on the light end of pop culture. Still, it’s a quick and fun read, and offers an interesting overview of some of our linguistic history.
If you’re not hip to that, chum, you can absquatulate in your hifalutin zop top like the hornswoggling scalawag you are. 23 skidoo!