It was a question I had not expected.
I was telling my college-aged son about a friend’s Miata, a two-seat sports car I had borrowed one weekend, mentioning that this model had a standard transmission. When I also spoke of its nifty stick shift, he looked puzzled.
“How can it have a stick shift if it’s a standard transmission?” he asked.
It turned out that he thought standard transmissions meant automatic transmissions, because, as he put it, “automatics are standard in most cars.”
It was my turn to look puzzled. Was this a piece of routine information that I had failed to pass along? Wasn’t this just part of the normal lexicon of life?
A SHORT TIME later, we found ourselves in Seattle at an outdoor sculpture park, staring at a large representation of something I recognized immediately. It had a sort-of figure-eight shape with a wheel on one end and fringe on the other.
“Pizza cutter,” he declared.
Nice try, but not exactly. It was a typing eraser, an object no longer needed in the 21st century. It was used to erase a letter or word that had been typed, and the fringe was used to brush away the eraser particles. I took a picture of the sculpture and, out of sheer curiosity, showed it to several dozen students at Augusta State University, where I teach. “Pizza cutter” was the usual response. One thought it was something pulled from the sea. Another thought it was the wheel of a baby carriage. I can’t explain that one.
But the experience got me wondering about other parts of the language that have been lost or are fading through the generations, especially with this generation that sits on the edges of both adolescence and adulthood.
I assembled a short list of terms and presented the list informally to students of various backgrounds and experiences.
Terms on the list that meant absolutely nothing to the students included the following:
• Carriage return – the mechanism or lever on a mechanical typewriter that moves the carriage, which carries the paper, from the left side to the right side while rotating the carriage up one or more spaces to a new line.
• Collect call – a long-distance telephone call that is paid for by the receiver of the call.
• Spindle adaptor – a column that one would place on the center spindle of a record player to be able to play 45-rpm records.
• Buss – an old-time word that means “kiss.”
• UHF – ultrahigh frequency, once found on televisions for certain stations.
Some of the terms that were hazily recognized by a handful but are fading fast included the following:
• Carbon paper – a lightweight paper coated on one side with a dark pigment that is tucked between two sheets of paper to copy what is on the top sheet to the bottom sheet.
• Fountain pen – a pen with a refillable ink reservoir.
• “Be Kind, Rewind” – stickers found on VHS tapes from the video rental shop.
• Dial-up modem – The modem that connects a computer to a phone line. The modem dials a phone number of an Internet service provider to establish a computer connection. The process takes several seconds and is accompanied by beeping and buzzing sounds.
WORDS HAVE always drifted away over the centuries. Words such as “breeches,” “icebox,” “slapjack” and “bosh” were routine parts of the language 100 years ago that we never touch today. And, perhaps, that is how it should be. Life evolves, and so must the idiom we use to describe that life.
But in this information age, the word evolution seems to have picked up speed, so much so that we can almost see the expressions of yesterday melting into the ionosphere.
The upside of the loss, of course, is that there is gain through replacement. We add hundreds of words to our knowledge base every year, and those words eventually reach most people and become a part of our lives. Last August, you may have heard, the Oxford English Dictionary announced the addition of 400 new words. Making that list were “retweet,” “textspeak,” “sexting,” “domestic goddess” and “mankini” – this last being a man’s bikini.
These new terms are reflective of circles in which many people circulate. The words make sense of everyday occurrences that need to be labeled to gain full currency and understanding.
EVEN AS WE gain these fresh terms, though, I have to wonder what terms will soon be no more. Will “pay phone” be next? Might it be “manual-flush public toilets” or maybe “hardback books”? What about “carburetor”? Does anyone still remember the high-beam switch on the car’s floorboard? Will gestures, such as twirling our hands to indicate manually rolling down the car window, also go away?
Ah, well, it’s all about progress, I suppose. I’ll have to keep that in mind this summer as I pull on my mankini.
(The writer is an associate professor of communication in the Department of Communications and Professional Writing at Augusta State University.)