Dog Eared

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Generational Words Birth a Terrific Lexical Book

Aren't you tired of Millennials and their selfies? Or maybe you are a Millennial and you're tired of Generation Xers and their grunge, not to mention Baby Boomers and their self-esteem?

No matter what generation you were born in, your destiny is to hear incessant blather about generations, as journalists are obsessed by the topic, particularly when it comes to making the younger generation seem like unholy mutants born to usher in the end of days.

Allan Metcalf's new word book — From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations — is a timely offering for era-obsessed readers with a taste for history and, of course, words. From the early days of America to the present day, Metcalf identifies the words that defined the various generations, providing plenty of word history and anecdotes along the way.

Metcalf uses Neil Howe and William Strauss' generational theory and terminology to ground this book. This creates a frame for the lexical explorations that are Metcalf's specialty, as he's demonstrated in Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, and Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush. Starting way back with the Republican Generation (born 1742-1766), Metcalf covers every American generation, including the Transcendental Generation (so-named for the likes of Emerson and Thoreau), the Lost Generation (World War I caused the losses), and the Silent Generation, an allegedly reticent bunch to which Metcalf belongs. Of course, there's plenty on the generations that are most likely to interest readers: the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the demographic that launched a thousand clickbaits, the Millennials.

Like any great word book, From Skedaddle to Selfie provides dozens, probably hundreds, of pleasant surprises and interesting facts that will differ for each reader. I've been inhaling the old Batman series on DVD, so my Bat-ears perked up when Metcalf discussed chum — a word of the wholesome G.I. Generation, born 1901-1924, as well as the Caped Crusader. I'm part of Generation X, which fills me with very little shame or pride, but I was still self-centeredly intrigued by Metcalf's representations of my ilk. Apparently, we're the generation of geeks, nerds, and dorks — that seems about right. I was talking with a fellow Generation Xer the other day about this book, and he wholeheartedly agreed with Metcalf's selection of whatever as an accurate representative of the slacker generation.

Metcalf also shows how words mutate across the generations. For example, hip (along with hep and pep) were used by the Lost Generation, but hippie was a characteristic word of the Boomers. Hipster — a coinage of the Silent Generation — has become a major Millennial word, often used insultingly for skinny-jean-wearing, handlebar-mustache-having, vaping youngsters who are perhaps trying a little too hard to be hip. Who knew hipness, in all its permutations, was such an enduring concept?

Metcalf's chapter on the much-maligned Millennial generation is particularly refreshing. In these days of mindless Millennial-bashing, it's great to see a writer take a more reasonable approach. I love Metcalf's description of a notorious word: "Selfie is an almost perfect word. It's transparently about the self. It's selfish, but the diminutive suffix  -ie makes it cute selfish instead of mean selfish. And it is quite literally a self expression, in both senses of that term. For the Millennials, it's a gift of their self to the watching world." Maybe the Millennials will get a break soon, because there's already a name for the generation born in 2005 or after: the Homeland generation, so-named because the homeland became an important concept post-9/11. I'm sure they'll be the ruination of humanity next.

This is one of Metcalf's most subjective books, which he acknowledges in his introduction. There isn't any infallible, scientific way to say "X word belongs to Y generation." In fact, many of these words span multiple generations. But when making such judgement calls, you couldn't ask for a better judge than Metcalf, whose deep research and common-sense approach provides strong support for his choices. Even if you're a Generation Xer who feels Metcalf has wronged you by including, say, you guys, it's hard to deny the thoughtfulness and research behind the choices.

This book is such a natural idea I'm surprised it didn't exist already. Unless you've time-traveled from the distant past or future, you can see a little of yourself in this book, and it gives you plenty of ammunition for learning (and complaining about) all those geezers and whippersnappers. Even a Gen X dork like me can't say whatever to this excellent book. I'll borrow a word from the Boomers and say it's downright awesome.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 29th 2015, 1:16 AM
Comment by: Freda W. (Darlington Australia)
A really intriguing sounding book... probably have to go and buy it. However, please, don't say that 'awesome' belongs to us Boomers! As a 'Boomer' I have long been really irritated by its overuse by Gen Y ( I think they are). When everything is 'awesome' including a perfectly ordinary sandwich it loses its meaning entirely!

Freda Worsey
West Australia
Thursday October 29th 2015, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Destinee (FL)
weird
Thursday October 29th 2015, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Stephen A. (PA)
typos

Like any great word book, From Selfie to Skedaddle
From Skedaddle to Selfie


William Straus' generational theory
William Strauss'

OK: The Improbably Story of America's Greatest Word
OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word

Metcalf's also shows how words mutate across the generations
Metcalf also shows how words mutate across the generations

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Wednesday November 4th 2015, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Freda--I second that emotion!
The ubiquity of "awesome" significantly post-dates our Yuppie boomer days--I never heard it used in a non-religious sense until the 1980s, when I moved from Chicago to California and found 'awesome" everywhere, along with "dude" and early Valley speak. A quick Google shows first use as a casual modifier in 1961, but I sure didn't get that memo; we used "groovy" and "far out" to fill the same lexical role.
Wednesday November 4th 2015, 6:41 PM
Comment by: Freda W. (Darlington Australia)
Indeed we did, Ellen. Gosh "far out" certainly takes me back... about 50 years!!
Freda
Thursday November 5th 2015, 7:32 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Freda and Ellen: I too shared your belief that "awesome" was a post-Boomer invention. This turns out to be an example of what linguist Arnold Zwicky calls the "recency illusion."

In his section on "awesome," Metcalf writes:

"Awesome is not a word particularly limited to Boomers, although it has appeared with increasing frequency during the Boomers' progression from birth to senior citizenship. But it's a word that some Boomers, at least, apply to themselves." He cites several websites with titles like "The Boomer Blogs: A Place for That Awesome Generation, Boomers!"

What Metcalf doesn't mention is that the weakened colloquial sense of "awesome" has been around since the 1960s, and spread via California surfer culture of the 1960s and 1970s. By 1981 it was common enough to be used in a Datsun commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NxnJYj0YcY And by 1982 it was a catchword of surfer Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
Tuesday January 12th 2016, 6:48 PM
Comment by: Emerson (OH)
I'd be super interested to learn about all the etymology and subjectiveness that would play into a book like this.
Tuesday January 12th 2016, 7:39 PM
Comment by: Izzy B. (OH)
This book seems really interesting and I'd like to see more of what the writer says about my generation. As someone who uses slang regularly, it has become almost a habit and I wonder if some of these words and phrases will be in my vocabulary permanently due to that habit. I like the approach of using language as a line and connection between generations simultaneously. :)
Tuesday January 12th 2016, 7:51 PM
Comment by: Reed G. (OH)
This book sounds amazing! It would be very fun to read in a classroom environment to learn about how the most common words and expressions came to be!
Wednesday March 2nd 2016, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Jasmine S. (MI)
you want me

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