Being the oldest at the office among my colleagues, I find amusement in today’s conversational English as I hear conversations around me. I find interesting the expressions and clichés of today that pretty much use the same words that I grew up with but have gotten different meanings with the times.
American English uses hundreds of idioms, both helpful and just plain ridiculous. It’s still possible to get through a whole day without expressing a single original phrase, if we try hard enough.
It’s not rocket science, I mean. Like, you can blow your top or go overboard or feel like you’re an emotional roller coaster or wind up between a rock and a hard place or hit the wall. Maybe it’s a cloud nine day, and you’re walking on air. And no, I’m not pulling your leg. There’s a method to this madness.
You can like probably think of a dozen more idioms that I haven’t mentioned. Nowadays, we like overuse all those phrases and stick them into our conversation as a substitute for original thought. Once upon a time, however, all those things we call clichés actually resonated with meaning.
I attend a lot of meetings where much of the dialogue is scripted by agendas, and proper English is expected language. I appreciate the fact that board meetings are opened with an invocation, where we mortals appeal to the Immortal for guidance in addressing issues and situations that may be larger than ourselves. I find interesting the styles of prayers that are offered, ranging from the 17th century King James English to loose intercourse with the Almighty that leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
What is even more revealing about our words is the off the record conversation that takes place before and after the formalities of a meeting or class that leave me sincerely wondering how the speaker can keep the two repertoires of language separate, if you know what I mean.
I came across the writings of author Katherine Britton that inspired me to consider the subject further.
She offered a few to consider that have probably already become outdated, or, shall I say, “no longer supported.”
“That’s a load of hog wash,” Britton quoted for starters. “This wholesome little phrase comes straight from the farm, where hogwash designates a mess of garbage and refuse that’s only fit for the pigs.”
The phrase certainly isn’t a compliment in any way you could twist it; in fact, it’s downright nasty.
Another one that takes us back a ways is Catch-22, used for any situation with a lose-lose outcome. Per Britton, the original phrase actually comes from a 1961 satirical novel by the same name.
“The plot highlights the result of bureaucratic regulations that take their validity from each other but can’t stand alone,” she wrote. “The bewildering, circular logic keeps characters from any good outcomes, thanks to the nonsense to which they’re subjected.”
I still occasionally hear reference to one’s signature as “your John Hancock.” Anyone who has viewed an image of the Declaration of Independence will recall that Hancock’s signature was the first and largest at the bottom of the document. As president of the Continental Congress, Hancock marked himself among the primary traitors if the War for Independence failed. He risked his life, his fortune and indeed, his sacred honor.
“Is that what you think of every time you sign a credit receipt?” Britton asked.
We all use language, and it’s a hop, skip and a jump from a meaningful metaphor for a dull catchphrase. After that, real meaning gets lost in the hubbub of “words, words, words,” as per William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.”
I’ve jotted down a few more recent American essential slang words for older generations and other foreigners to learn, like awesome, cool, beat, amped, pumped, all in, totally radical and ripped – all adjectives. This year I got acquainted with woke, as well as derecho, the latter of which I believe is meteorological rather than etymological.
Awesome is super impressive, whereas cool speaks of being popular and approved. Beat can mean to win or hit in normal terms while in slang it refers to being very tired or exhausted. On the other hand, if one is amped or pumped, they’re super excited and can’t wait for something to happen.
Then there is in, or all in. We first learned the meaning of in as a preposition. Today’s new slang speaks of being in fashion or trendy at the moment, which can be so yesterday in no time at all. Being all-in refers to united effort directed at a singular purpose.
Totally radical is another term for up to date and trendy rather than espousing political revolution. Ripped once meant torn, but now means built, as in finely developed muscles and bodies sculpted by much working out or exercising.
Woke, according to my 1974 paperback edition of Merriam-Webster’s from high school days, is simply wake in past tense but has now morphed into a term describing perceived awareness of issues concerning social and racial justice.
Then there’s this thing about cancel culture, which has been described by the Urban Dictionary as a desire to cancel out a person or community from social media platforms while denying the target of their criticism opportunity to defend themselves. The writer of the entry went on to dismiss most people involved in cancel culture as being narcissistic and immature.
Verb phrases associated with casual gathering and relaxation with friends are now to hang out and to chill out. My dated understanding of those terms brings images to mind of drooping or freezing.
Finally, offering someone a greeting, particularly via social media, is a shout out.
I think that may have me at least partly caught up with 21st century pop English, right?
Another author and blogger by the name of Lynette Kittle offers perspective.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends, admiring and looking to celebrities as role models and inspiration,” she wrote. “However, it’s good to take a look at their lifestyle to see what types of philosophies you might be letting inspire you. When in doubt of what your modern day hero might be espousing, look to time-tested and settled truth – most of all, scripture to see what God has to say about an activity or philosophy they are promoting.”
The 2,000-year-old commands of the Bible challenge us to respond to society’s vicissitudes by practicing self-control and to live upright and godly in the world. That sure seems simpler than pursuing society’s ever-changing philosophies. I’m plenty busy trying to keep my Windows 98 computer going.