Take Sol’s “McWord” For It

My copy of Sol Steinmetz’s book There’s A Word For It is a little tattered these days after close to a decade of heavy use.

It is a hardcover, pocket-sized book jammed with a dazzling array of new words as they were created, and records the year they were born and grew to become part of everyday English. Thus, I learned a number of new words and discovered many I thought new had been around for decades before I adopted them into my vocabulary.

For example, I started speaking and writing Ms. as a safe title of respect for women back in the 1970s when feminists insisted a word as neutral as Mr. – for married or unmarried men – be coined for women. Thus, Miss for single women and Mrs. for married women were blended into one size fits all Ms. I was one of the ancient males who struggled through that little transformation clinging to Miss and Mrs. until we realized Ms. was here to stay.

I was quite prepared to accept the change as another feminist triumph until Steinmetz informed me “the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of Ms. to 1901, when a writer in the Humeston, Iowa newspaper New Era reported that ‘as a word to be used in place of Miss or Mrs. when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the person addressed; the Sunday Republican (a newspaper of Springfield, Mass) suggests a word of which Ms. is the abbreviation with a pronunciation like Mizz …”

It was a surprise to find that Ms. had been around for 70 years when women’s lib claimed it for themselves and persuaded male dinosaurs it was an acceptable form of address. (I should note that as far as I know, Humeston was not founded by my branch of the Hume family. But in this age of genealogical discovery, who knows?

Steinmetz is fun to read as he takes his audience through more than a century of new word creations, many of which delight and educate the reader. At least for me, there were very few pages lacking a new word – or a history of a word which surprised.

As the dust jacket promises, Steinmetz “takes us on a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (1949) joyride (1908) through our cultural history as seen through the neato (1951) words and terms we’ve invented to describe it all.” The bracketed dates mark the years the word was first used.

He estimates that by the 1900s, the English language had adopted around 90,000 new words since dictionaries were born and that by the end of the century, the list had grown to 500,000. He admits that is just a guesstimate (1936).

I found Steinmetz most fascinating when he moved into the 1950s, and I learned how many of the words I thought commonplace were newly minted. Academia was coined in 1956; nerd a few years earlier. The world didn’t have paralegals until 1951, and while we were aware of traffic jams, gridlock to describe a big one wasn’t used until 1980, the same year we added the high-five to describe congratulatory greetings – and infotainment became an acceptable way to present television news. And regrettably shows no signs of changing.

So it was that in the past few years I have learned a metrosexual is “a fashion-conscious heterosexual male;” a flexitarian is “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat;” and, that tanorexia “is the condition of being addicted to tanning.”

There’s A Word For It can still be found in a good book store or quickly ordered. Come to think of it; I should find a new copy before the one I have disintegrates. I need one close at hand to prevent further decline to the status of a McWord – “a writer who serves up words as standardized as fast food.”

Please resist the impulse to comment.Thank you.

2 comments

  1. Surprisingly, to me at least, I have never come across this book, although I have several shelves of dictionaries, usage guides, style books, etymologies etc. that I’ve collected over a long life.

    I’m going out tomorrow to hunt for this.

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