If you’ve ever thought about how fast our language – and therefore our culture – is changing, you only need a handful of random examples to prove the point. Writers, especially, must be keenly sensitive to these changes to remain relevant, or risk being dismissed outright.
A clear example is “housewife.” Commonly used not long ago, we’ve almost completely replaced it with “stay-at-home mom.” New societal priorities have women under less pressure about running the household and more pressure about the choices they make to raise their children.
From the kitchen to the office, we move to the word “bossy,” which until recently was used to describe any girl who showed leadership qualities or the fierce determination that’s always admired in boys. Women who’ve risen to positions of power are fed up with the stereotype, and are trying to will it away. Isn’t it about time?
The word “occupy” earned a powerful political meaning a couple of years ago with the Occupy Wall Street movement. In Shakespeare’s time, the word “occupy” was entirely sexual but not used in polite society. Use your imagination.
How about “you guys.” This expression is used to refer to groups of men, groups of women, and groups that include both men and women. A “guy” is definitely a singular male, but women don’t seem to mind the association. Now try to imagine men accepting the generic term “you girls” or “you gals.” Not a chance. And what does that say about our culture?
Then of course there’s “elderly,” which you wouldn’t dare call someone of advanced years to their face. “Senior” has become acceptable, but to my mind it’s still a bit condescending – perhaps because I’m, well, getting closer. And closer. In our culture, “old” is not always a good thing, but it’s clear and accurate. And really, what’s wrong with it, especially these days when we see old people doing everything from starting businesses to hang gliding. We all get old.
“The new normal” is a term that has become pervasive, and it says a lot about how trapped we feel. Used often with regard to climate change (not global warming), it clearly suggests an acceptance of our quickly depleting environment. As the great writer Zadie Smith suggested in a recent article, “We can’t even say ‘abnormal’ to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated. What ‘used to be’ is painful to remember.” The “new normal” is a kind of surrender.
There’s even a decline in the use of the word “God,” as more and more people describe the wonders of the natural world as divine, or talk about their spirituality in a new-agey way. Whatever you believe, it’s a sign of the times. God was once the center of life, and still is for lots of people, but few people talk about God as openly as before, and that says a lot about how we’ve changed.
Writers who want to get a message across should pay close attention to the evolution of words because it’s a signal of how we think, how we feel and how we are changing as a society. As I’ve said before in my blog, words matter.