What a century this has been. A century that took us from horseback to fuel-injected horsepower, from gaslights to sodium-vapor streetlights, from crystal radios to digital television, from compasses to global positioning satellites, from wood stoves to microwave ovens, from Victrolas to DVD players, from poultices to computed tomography.

While those and many more innovations were accompanied by the introduction of new terminology and additional meanings for existing words, technology was not alone responsible for the metamorphosis in meaning of a substantial number of existing words that changed dramatically over the course of the century. Some alternative terms supplanted once-dominant names. Other terms declined in usage and gradually vanished from the common lexicon. In some cases, shorthand reference to specialized terminology eclipsed traditional meanings of certain words.

Language is dynamic, and certainly many of the changes introduced during the 20th century constitute logical progressions in usage. But a disturbingly large quotient of modern terms result from grotesque mutations in meaning—the illegitimate progeny of ignorance and lack of respect for etymology and history.

Just as a person awakening today from a century-long Rip Van Winkle doze would be bewildered by our modern world, we would be confounded if we could somehow travel back in time to the early portion of the 20th century. Consider how confused you’d be to learn that the shop down the street was having a sale on waists, and how people feared consumption. During the early part of the century, “waist” was the term for a blouse or the bodice of a woman’s dress. While today we laud “consumption” as a symbol of affluence and an indicator of a healthy economy, this term connoted anything but health a century ago, when it commonly referred to tuberculosis. Today we gawk at spectacles, but back then that was the term for what we call eyeglasses or, in even more abbreviated fashion, glasses.

Some words have all but disappeared during the past five decades. Few people refer to pants as “trousers” anymore. Ask the clerk in a clothing store to sell you some dungarees and you’ll likely leave empty-handed. Few people, including that clerk, realize that “jean” is really the name for a heavy-duty twilled cotton fabric used in manufacturing dungarees—itself the name of a denim fabric. While people use the verb form of the word “spoon” to indicate a scooping or lifting motion, few remember that word had romantic connotations, referring to caressing or kissing.

As a result of news media habits, social change or politicization, many words were assigned new meanings that suppressed previous denotations. The word “solution” is now widely used in reference to computer software applications. While the word “legacy” has long been used to indicate a financial bequest, or an ideology or tangible property handed down from an ancestor, it is now a term for a large mainframe computer system within which incremental modifications have been made over time. Likewise, computing administrators are fond of calling a computer network an “enterprise”—a term that traditionally means a substantial undertaking or a business organization. Instruction manuals today are labeled “documentation,” and illegal aliens are now called “undocumented immigrants.” Although in its traditional sense the verb “molest” means to disturb, bother or annoy, it is now almost exclusively identified with a specific type of molestation—sexual assault. Once used to designate exuberance or merriment, the term “gay” is now understood exclusively as an indicator of sexual orientation. Although in its literal sense the term “affirmative action” would suggest an activity that is declarative or true, it has been inexorably associated since 1964 with legal mandates to provide equal employment and admissions opportunities for members of minority groups and women. Likewise, derivative programs have all but subsumed the word “diversity,” a term that traditionally refers to difference or distinctiveness. Lacking in the contemporary use of the word is the modifier “racial and ethnic,” which not only would provide clarification, but also would have left the traditional meaning of the word undisturbed.

But such is the nature of contemporary use of language, which is becoming truncated in our pursuit of speed and efficiency. Our speech today is peppered with cryptic appellations: CEO, IPO, EIR, MOU, APR, 401 (k), LLP, UPS, FEDEX, LAX, NBA, NFL, MLB, ALCS, ESPN, SUV, ABS, MSRP, IRS, HMO, PPO, PLO, OPEC, FDIC, NASA, EPA, CD, DVD, MP3, PCS, GPS, RAM, URL, Y2K. Ironically, however, the zeal of our society to abbreviate language through creation of acronyms and short-cut terminology only short-circuits understanding and engenders confusion. The term “CD,” for example, can refer either to a financial investment medium (certificate of deposit) or to a digitized storage medium for sound or data (compact disk). Likewise, subjects of political strife and financial security share another abbreviation, “IRA,” which can refer either to the Irish Republican Army or to an Individual Retirement Account.

This essay, then, is a plea not only for reverence of the language, but also for speed reduction. Spell out the meaning of acronyms on first reference. Include modifiers necessary for understanding. Go slower to increase the efficiency of communication. Rip Van Winkle would thank you.

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