These Are the Terms that Try Men’s Souls

December 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Back in the day,” “The Cloud,” “Kind regards”: these are among the words and phrases trying men’s (and women’s) souls these days – well, at least trying the Old Curmudgeon’s soul. They come, they go, and some stay forever. The introduction of new words in our language is a phenomenon previously explored by the Old Curmudgeon in the Blunderbuss. It is not always easy to affix the blame on the person who introduced these literal plagues into our lingua.

The ubiquitous term, “Dust Bowl,” hardly grates upon the ears as do the aforementioned “combo-ggravations,” but we do know exactly when it entered our consciousness. On April 14, 1935, the day known as “Black Sunday,” 20 of the worst “black blizzards” occurred throughout the Dust Bowl, causing extensive damage and turning the day to night. Witnesses reported they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points. The term Dust Bowl was first used in print the next day to describe this storm by Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger.

Like AIDS, “Back in the day” has been lurking about for decades (in the occasional book since the early 1940s), but did not surface into the public consciousness until about the time AIDS did, in the 1980s. H. Samy Alim, an anthropologist and sociolinguist at UCLA, suggested to William Safire that the expression may have been popularized by the rapper Ahmad’s 1994 album and title song “Back in the Day.” A bit of googling by the Grammarphobia blog, however, indicates that the expression was well established by the late 1980s, years before Ahmad’s album was released. Researchers have been able to pinpoint “Ground Zero” for the AIDS explosion in the U.S. But for “Back in the Day”? At least one person pins the blame on Eddie Murphy – or was it Richard Pryor? He doesn’t remember. But what does it matter who is to blame? Like AIDS, “Back in the Day” seems here to stay.

The concept of “The Cloud,” that is, “cloud computing.” dates back to the earliest years of computing. But the first scholarly use of the term “cloud computing” was in a 1997 lecture by Ramnath Chellappa of the University of Texas. Cloud computing reached the public consciousness around the year 2007, when the Google Docs service went mainstream. And now, every computing industry magazine I read is as infested with “the cloud” and “cloud computing” as a fresh cow pie with flies.

No one seems to have a clue as to the fiend(s) who popularized the use of “Kind regards,” but its use is, I suppose, preferable to the closing salutation, “Warm regards.” If revenge is a dish best served cold, why do we not have “Burning regards,” “Scorched regards,” “Hot to trot regards,” “Torch song regards,” “House afire regards,” “Tepid regards,” “Lukewarm regards,” “Chilly regards,” or “Frigid regards” to pin point our true feeling for the addressee?

“Demoted” and “Nationals” are two words so engrained in the English language that it is hard to imagine life without them. I myself throw them about in conversation with uncaring impunity. But there was such a time, and it is still within the memory of the smallest handful of the living amongst us, when we lived quite happily without them. On June 1, 1914, the El Paso Herald observed, “Every once in a while, a new word arrives and learning to like a new word comes a bit hard. The latest new word is “demoted” for “unpromoted” or “put back.” Two weeks ago one had hardly heard of it and now it comes up every day at supper time. Last winter it was “nationals.” At first one left the word to newspaper editors and employees of the state department entirely, but now everybody uses it and it feels quite good on the tongue.”


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