My dad had a phrase he always used when he thought that we should think things through before reaching what he hoped would then be the right decision, not necessarily in a moral sense but more in the sense of what was likely to land you in the least doo-doo. Whenever he thought that there was a quicker, easier or more advantageous way of approaching anything, he would always implore us to ‘screw the loaf’. I have no idea why: no idea what the etymology of this particular phrase could possibly be. I never heard anybody else use the phrase, but I also never heard anybody question its definition. However obscure its nascence, its meaning appeared clear.
I have always found it fascinating how words bend to our needs over time. (Author’s note: if you do not experience such fascination then, in all honesty, I must warn you that you may well find the few hundred words that are to follow deeply boring, if not actively irritating. It might well prove beneficial for us both if you just decide to hit the ‘Like’ button now and go off instead to trim the hamster’s claws.) I started this little piece with the intention of casting an eye over some of the many words that had changed meaning quite dramatically during my lifetime. The obvious first example was the word ‘gay’ which, when I was at school, simply meant ‘happy, bright and carefree’. Slowly it began to change its meaning towards the one we understand today, but in an abusive way – as it was widely assumed (this being the 1970’s when nobody, it would appear, knew better) that, by and large, being called gay was, in itself offensive. (It made a change, I suppose, to ‘bummer’ which was, at that time, the most commonly used term of abuse at my school – an all-boys school by the way – which to the best of my knowledge had exactly the same percentage of gay pupils as any other, although they always appeared happier.) Then, slowly over the next few years, the gay population rightfully re-took ownership of the word and it became, once again, a friendly word. Today it remains in common usage and is not in any way – unless you are in possession of a pea-brain and an intellect to match – offensive. ‘Gay’ remains a commonly used word, a good word, but it is rarely, if ever, used in its original meaning.
I racked my brain (not in the Mediaeval sense of stretching, which actually, would probably have been far more beneficial) for further examples: Completion Date, for instance, used to be the date by which a job is to be finished, but now increasingly is used to identify the date by which one has to start explaining why the job isn’t finished. Mobile Technology, in my youth, would have been a phrase used to describe the most up-to-date caravan available, whereas now it is more likely to be used to describe a mobile telephone that is so advanced, nobody over the age of twelve is able to work it, let alone make a phone call with it. There was a time when Patriotism merely described the love of one’s own country and not the hatred of everyone else’s, when Peace of Mind was simply a feeling of calm and security and not necessarily the product of a bottle of whisky. When a Pension was a wage, paid by the government, from retirement age (65) to the day of death (usually 66) and not something you have to start worrying about from birth, contributing to from age 18, and paying into all of your life, so that you can claim it at 80 – if you haven’t died first: when Something for the Weekend was a condom and not cocaine. All well and good, but the whole enterprise began to feel hopelessly nostalgic. What I was actually looking for was something rather more pithy*.
Many words have picked up new meanings as we have moved slowly through the twenty-first century. Most are commonly understood before they make it into the dictionary, tacitly recognised, but never formally documented. I realised that these were the words I wanted to consider: words that have new meanings; meanings that are completely removed from the definitions of old. I give you, below, the very few that have fallen instantly to mind. I see it as a starting point (and not simply an excuse to utilise the half page of ragged notes I have just scribbled down). I know that you will all have many more (and better) and I look forward to hearing them**:
Agreement – accord in which one party believes they have got their own way, whilst the other has misheard the question.
Award-winning, super-fast Broadband – broadband.
Compassion – an emotion felt by the winner.
Child-proof – anything that can only be opened by the under fives.
Children – things that fall out.
Debate – discussion aimed wholly at getting validation for your own point of view.
Free-From – twice the price, half the ingredients.
Gosh – dyslexic with good sense of humour.
Herd immunity – the theory that when we’ve all been ill enough, for long enough, it won’t matter any more.
Holiday¹ – time spent away from home, work and bills. A period of constant worry about home, work and bills.
Holiday² – time spent away from home. A period of constant worry about catching something and dying.
Hollow – all victories that do not involve chocolate.
Light Exercise – near-death experience.
Marriage – long, interminable moan, such as that of a dry joint on a long journey.
Music – noise that grates on your partner.
Pure – full of all sorts of stuff that puts the price up.
Relatives – things that fall out.
Sense of humour – the real reason why your spouse hates you.
Service is temporarily unavailable – award-winning, super-fast broadband.
Silence – the sound of getting your own way.
Sorry – word used only in the very last resort as a means of eventually getting your own way.
Tantrum – what adults have very, very quietly.
Teeth – things that fall out.
Umbrage – what your wife takes.
Unknown – why she takes it.
Vegetable oil – anything in which you can fry a chip, which does not come out of a lorry’s sump.
Voice – noise that grates on your partner.
Weight¹ – what you were before you lost it.
Weight² – what you were before you put it on.
Wrong – whatever it is you have done.
And that’s as far as I have currently got. A long, long way to go before I can challenge the OED I know, but with your help I very much hope that I can accumulate a repository of word and phrase to which every blogger can refer in the future with a universal understanding of meaning – like ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, but with fewer pictures. I would be happy to receive all contributions…
*‘Terse and vigorously expressive’ apparently. British readers should think Princess Anne.
**In my head, I believe that I know exactly what kind of definitions will be produced by each of you: some will be sweet, some will be bitter, some will be clever, some will be perceptive, some will be satirical and some will be plain barmy (I’m sure you all know who you are), but I hope you’ll give it a go. I know that, together we can produce a new dictionary for the twenty first century. It is desperately needed: who, for instance, can be happy with the old one when it tells us that promises are meant to be kept and that hell is somewhere that the bad people die to and not somewhere in which the innocent can be forced to live their whole lives…
I look forward to being roundly cheered up.