Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Signifiers

Stop the Term-Creation Meaning-Kidnap!

When language became searchable.

Sarah M. Brownsberger

THR Illustration; Shutterstock photo.

On our recent return to the United States after a decade away in our other language, my family was struck by a change in American English. The parts of speech were sliding around. Nouns became verbs, verbs became nouns, and both became passive and adjectival. This confused us. If someone sent a text message that read, “I’ve been hammocked on a treed hill,” should we send help? Was getting hammocked like getting jacked? And what dog could tree a hill?

It was “okay” to twist usage; people “got it.” If a moisturizer ad read, “WRINKLE RESULTS IN ONE WEEK!” only a low-value consumer would wonder where on her face the wrinkle would appear.

Process was chic; agency was uncomfortable. Things happened automatically even when we did them. We no longer followed trends; trends simply trended. We didn’t take care of ourselves; we engaged in self-care. We couldn’t check ourselves in, but we could use self check-in. We didn’t obey public health orders; we were in lockdown.

As a family from two countries, we were hyphenated Americans. This sounded like heart trouble. We flew to a non-towered airport, self-concealed in a low-rise urban area, and groaned over the health-care options in our new-employee on-boarding pre-package.

We wondered: Were we condensing phrases to terms because we were typing with our thumbs? Had we come to expect listeners and readers to autocomplete and fill in syntax? Had work jargon saturated private life because Americans worked such long hours? Had a generation told by daycare providers that they were good toy-picker-uppers grown up to make a norm of behaviorist verbing? Had the passive constructions by which one avoids assigning blame (or credit) in the workplace made naming who did what seem rude?

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