Bad words from yesteryear

Here’s an interesting little post from the American Heritage Dictionary about words that a substantial percentage of its Usage Panel frowned upon in the mid-1960s. They include balding, choreograph, senior citizen, divorce (as an intransitive verb), and upcoming.

Reading these early ballot results has an oddly disorienting effect, standing as a vivid reminder that creeping changes in the English language have been going on constantly throughout our lives, often without our even noticing. All of the usages listed above have become so commonplace that we don’t bother to ballot them anymore, or to include usage notes for them in the dictionary. No doubt many of the usages that are widely condemned today will, in turn, quietly work their way into standard usage, until one day we’ll wonder why anyone ever objected to them.

I would just quibble with two of the words.

Balding has always struck me as an odd word; it sure looks like the present participle of the verb to bald.  But there is no such verb!  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I have used the word to describe a character–the word is useful!  But I would never do it without a twinge of guilt.

Senior citizen is, I suppose, a phrase in good standing, but it only feels right to me it in certain contexts, like TV news reports, where euphemisms are more or less expected.  You would never use it in fiction to describe a character, except maybe ironically.

I have written before about words and phrases that seem to be in the process of changing, like jive as a synonym for jibe, and “I have a pit in my stomach” for “I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.”  Let me add the transitive use of the verb graduate, as in, “When I graduate college, I’m going to become an English teacher.”  Interestingly, the battle used to be fought over the active vs. passive usage of graduate: “He graduated from college” vs. “He was graduated from college.”  Who exactly is doing the graduating?  That battle appears to have been lost, although you could still say: “The college graduated 300 seniors last Saturday.”

Is the language falling apart, or is it just changing?

2 thoughts on “Bad words from yesteryear

  1. Falling apart. Even if it’s been doing so for 300 or 3000 years, it’s still falling apart. “Creeping changes,” indeed. They mean “creeping decay.” We went from good to bad; now it’s bad to worse. But I do not despair. I sharpen my red pencil and sound the charge.
    Your cold-eyed editor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.