Recently I read a novel written in the early nineties and experienced a mild shock when one of the characters told another that he had made a Xerox of an important document.
Way back then… hardly anybody had a scanner, and Xerox was a household word. But it’s been a long, long time since I heard anyone use it as a synonym for copy. Come to think of it, I don’t hear anybody saying photocopy either. Nowadays we, at least in my small social circle, just say copy without reference to whether the item had been produced by printing off a Web page, scanned, or Xeroxed. If we want to emphasize that the thing is a piece of paper rather than a collection of pixels, we call it a hard copy.
That started me thinking about the words that have flowered during my lifetime, bloomed briefly, and then disappeared as the things they referred to were superseded by new technology. I think Polaroid has just about gone the way of Xerox now. A lot of technical terms that came from people who fiddled with negatives in darkrooms are now preserved for non-specialists mainly by Photoshop: dodging, burning, et cetera. When’s the last time you heard anybody outside a computer museum refer to a floppy disk or a zip drive, or tell you how much core memory their machine had? What about Betamax? VHS? Rewinding the tape? Where are the Walkmans of yesteryear? And thank goodness word processors have disappeared; I think I spent at least half of the eighties trying to explain to writer friends that they’d be better off with a computer than with a Wang.
Victrola, gramophone and phonograph belong to an even earlier era than mine, but I knew what they were; my daughters don’t. Nor did they get their skinned knees painted with Mercurochrome. They have no idea what to do with the funny sliding stick that we call a slide rule.
Then there are the terms that seem to have eternal life – or is that just because I can’t imagine a future in which nobody takes Aspirin, uses Scotch tape, or binds the universe together with duct tape?
And then there are the words that logically should have disappeared but haven’t; my husband still calls the refrigerator an icebox, and no, he’s not that old. Telephones still have dial tones, but they have no dials.
What kind of lifespan do you think mouse, Tweet, blog and vlog will have?
Contemplating language change, I drifted from technology into thinking of all the ethnic slurs of the past that have now been scraped out of our language. And in most cases, no loss… but it’s interesting, at least if you’re a linguist, to see how fast they’ve disappeared. Nobody has a touch of the tarbrush now, Catholics aren’t mackerel snappers, and my daughters have no clue what the Yellow Peril was. I’ll happily wave goodbye to buck and squaw but feel some nostalgia for Indian summer. Chink, slope, slant can go into history’s dustbin for all I care, as can spic, wop, and dago. By all means let’s dump Hymie, Ikey, and Shylock as descriptors. But I do feel for the future linguist who tries to get a dissertation out of the rising and falling fortunes of colored person/person of color.
What’s all this got to do with writing? Well… science fiction writers are always on the watch for word choices that give readers the feeling of a different world, aren’t we? And here are some potential strategies.
Perhaps only great-grandpa refers to streaming or downloading, while younger people use a term that implies vast chunks of data transferred instantaneously, like chunking?
Tired of trying to dream up a name for your stunner/phaser/whatever? Why not pick an actual proper name that’s consistent with your world and make that brand name the universally used synonym for a handheld weapon that kills with some kind of energy beam? Or, for a little fun, have several brands and slip in an allusion to currently prominent figures. “No wonder you can’t hit anything you aim at. Those Blasey Fords always miss – when they don’t misfire altogether.”
Are conflicts between political, ethnic or religious groups a thing in your novel? Let one guy refer to those cultists who sacrifice small animals as Puppy Kickers while somebody else shushes him for extreme incorrectness. The aliens whose heads are surrounded by gently waving tentacles could be Anemones, which could get shortened over time to Neemies.
Okay, there’s nothing groundbreaking in all this; science fiction writers were creating interesting neologisms before I was born. It’s just a couple of ways of approaching them that I hadn’t thought about much before, and – as with every thought more complex than “Time to take the chicken out of the oven” — I am, naturally, considering how to use it.
Besides, it gives me a great answer for the next dozen people who want to know how writers get their ideas. “I was reading a book that mentioned Xeroxes,” ought to send them away scratching their heads.
What’s your favorite fictional neologism?
What disappeared word do you privately mourn?
What term do you think is next for the chopping block?
And for extra credit, can you tell me the source for the title of this piece – without googling it?