Among Language Lounge readers I expect (and hope) that there are a few who, like me, have a part-time obsession with genealogy and family history. We're fortunate today to have many good resources to work with. So much is online today at websites like Family Search, Findagrave, and the various historical newspaper archives, many of them free, that are now digitized.

I am also fortunate in having some family heirlooms in documentary form that have come to me because no one else wanted them. A gem among these is a diary that my great-grandmother Ethel Wyley kept intermittently from 1936 to 1940. It's a short-form diary in a bound book, of a kind that used to be popular; it looks like this.

In January this year, noting that it was the diary's 85th anniversary, I started tweeting the entries, as a way of sampling the flavor of my ancestor's life, a little bit each day. Now after six months of this I have a small appreciation of what her day-to-day was like. Along the way, I am increasingly fascinated by how vernacular language has changed from the time she wrote until today.

85 years is a short period of time in relation to language change, and that's a good thing in this case: I don't think there's anything in the diary that I don't understand, or can't make a good guess at. What does change in this time frame is mainly lexical (word and phrase choices), and to a lesser extent, grammatical.

Since the diary is in the everyday language of an uneducated, small-town woman, I am always mindful that I'm reading a dialect, even an idiolect, as opposed to the standard variety of American English. Fortunately, I have two good aids to help me decide what's just Ethel's way of speaking and what indicates a genuine shift in usage. I grew up in the same area where Ethel did (small-town southern Colorado), and so I am familiar with some of the peculiarities of speech that are still prevalent there. Also, I knew her personally (she lived to be 103), and so I have some firsthand experience against which to weigh what I read in the diary.

Considering all of the above, here is what strikes me most forcibly: education makes all the difference in the way a person writes, and that may have little to do with how that person speaks. I remember my great-grandmother as a very articulate, clearly enunciating, and clear-minded old lady, from my earliest childhood till her death when I was in my 30s. If you know her only by her diary, you would never guess this about her. She is a terrible speller and she has numerous grammatical eccentricities. She left school after tenth grade and what education she had till then was the schools of newly established, small farming communities. The standard was not high. There was clearly a scarcity of qualified teachers.

So on to some particulars. We all know that irregular verbs in English present a learning challenge for children and for all students of English. Ethel consistently simplifies irregular verbs by reducing the number of their inflected forms. Perhaps the thinking is that since they are already irregular, why not reduce the number of patterns they require in order to simplify? Here are some examples I find in the diary, where present forms take the place of past, and singular forms serve for the plural as well:

  • The Center [Colorado] preacher give a nice sermon. / She give a wonderful lecture on alcohol.
  • Mrs. McCoy come over today and we had a nice visit. / March come in like a lamb.
  • Clint sit up part of the day.
  • Mary Rose and Mrs. Kim Camron was calling on me today. / Elma and Bill was up in eight feet of snow.

Is this Ethel or is this dialect? Dialect in this case. As Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling point out in their definitive survey American English: Dialects and Variations, nearly all American vernaculars use or formerly used the base form of the verb for the past, either by analogy with verbs like cut and put, or by retention of an earlier standard inflection that is now obsolete. Wolfram and Schilling also note that in most vernaculars the leveling of all past-tense forms of be to was, thus accounting for the last pair of examples above.

Ethel's lexical choices present more of a challenge because I can't gather much reliable data from her contemporaries to see if they spoke like her. The best source I have is the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), and while it captures a snapshot of the published zeitgeist of the 1930s, it can't inform us much about the way people talked to each other or talked in their heads. For that, I think we find better models in fiction. In one entry, for example, Ethel observes that

  • Mary Rose and I went calling, everyone was gone from home except Mary Pickett.

Mary Rose is Ethel's sister-in-law. "Went calling" is old in English, as any reader of fiction will know, but it's dead in American English today, and is a good example of shifting usage. I think we would say "went visiting" in today's colloquial English.

Here are a few of Ethel's observations that I've puzzled over; perhaps you can tell me in the comments how they strike you.

  • Fred was sick today so Leona didn't come after Ordean.

Fred is her son-in-law; Ordean is her granddaughter and Leona is her daughter. What she means in today-speak is "Leona didn't come to pick up Ordean." I find come after an odd choice. That verb phrase has had the meaning "pursue or hunt down (a person)" since the late 1200s and that's certainly the prevailing meaning today when the phrase is followed by a noun or pronoun. So it seems an odd (even if concise) lexical choice.

  • Glenn is very sick with flue and has had another tooth taken.

Glenn is Ethel's brother. Another tooth taken? Surely today we would just say "another tooth pulled" or "another tooth out" or "lost another tooth", unless some other obscure meaning is meant. The wording almost suggests that there's a tooth thief about.

  • Alterated a grean silk dress for Mrs. Ebel / I am alterating six dresses fore Susan Cornelious.

Ethel is a professional clothesmaker and many of her diary entries are about sewing. Today we would just say altered, right? Even if the sign in tailor's window says "alterations". I've never heard alterate, but the OED has citations from 1425 to 1999, so perhaps this word is just not in my idiolect. Is it in yours?

  • I am making Mrs. Bowsher a wash dress this week, also alterating a lovely new black one.

Wash dress? My first guess was that it was a dress you did the wash in, but that wouldn't justify a commission for one, surely. COHA has a small handful of valid hits on wash dress, all from the 1920s to 1940s. The first two are from fiction.

  • All out for fun -- boys in duck pants and men without coats and women in wash dresses.
  • She was tanned, and wore a blue wash dress, which was constantly ruffling up, so that her purplish-blue wash bloomers showed.
  • The girl who is going to do her own housework must include several attractive, simple wash dresses and aprons for this purpose.

Does anyone out there still use this term? Or have we just replaced it with machine-washable? It seems to be a reverse retronym, where a distinction that was once important between the default type and a subtype has now disappeared.

We all probably wish that we had asked our elders a lot more questions before they disappeared from our lives and this diary certainly has that effect on me. But I'm glad it's here to answer some questions and to give me a sample of the everyday language of the past.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.