By William Kirby
I always wanted to visit Waikiki Beach. In 1953. Before jet skis and parasailing and cell phones and the modern need for music cranked-up (thanks, Spinal Tap) to eleven. Just the beach and a lazy martini or two. Men in non-ironic Aloha shirts, and women in hairdos concocted of equal parts hot glue and aerospace resin. Maybe a baseball game coming on over Armed Forces radio.
There’s a word for that. Anemoia is nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. It’s not a word I’d ever trot out in a book—it’s too obviously attempting to show off a mastery of vocabulary. Which would be a bad idea, as the word is a neologism (see how smart Wikipedia makes you look?) on par with Lisa Simpson’s cromulent. I love both words though. They sound good.
There are, by some counts, over one million words in the English language. Every two hours or so, a new one is invented. A dogtor is a vet who only takes dogs. Listicle, graphene, binky, sparticle. Ship has gained the meaning of advocating a relationship between two, usually famous, people.
Eventually, some of these words will work their way into acceptance. With luck, some will quickly be forgotten. (It’s a bit sad that words such as habdabs didn’t survive my grandparent’s generation.) Either way, I love the English language—amorphous and omnivorous as it is. I love slang in particular. It keeps stodgy dictionaries honest.
Not that I advocate leaving older, more refined words behind. We took glissade from the French in the 1830s. It’s a wonderful noun and a useful verb; poetic to the point of onomatopoeia. (Its contemporary skilamalink, meaning shady and secretive, didn’t fare so well.) Fume, trotted out by Shakespeare’s Romeo, has been with us for roughly seven hundred years. “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.”
And yet, politics aside, modern life doesn’t feel like the 16th century. Our language understands this. Where once a hero may have been the victim of a Machiavellian plot, now she has been swift-boated. Ballet is great. But so is krump—even if it is retro.
I love the elasticity of language, the leading edge of which has always been slang. English cannot be constrained by definitions and synonyms and etymology. Language is a living, moving beast. Anyone who gets to go to work with that everyday has to be (if we might tip our hat to the 60s) psyched.