I’ve been using language to communicate for over 50 years, which is a long time. I figure with this much experience, I’m sort of an expert in words. I use them in every day life to describe things, convey ideas, complain, and to write, what I hope are, funny stories. I recently came to the realization that I might not have kept up with words as much as I should have in order to be an expert. Then again, should I be required to keep current or should first use take precedence?
Sunday afternoons were ‘family time’ when we would get together for dinner and to visit. My family of four and my sister’s family of five would travel to our parents’ home for the afternoon and gather in the living room while my mother put the finishing touches on the day’s feast. Everyone would chat and get caught up on happenings from the previous week. One Sunday, when the dinner bell rang, I stood up and asked if everyone was ready for some grundles. The loud chatter in the room came to a dead stop. Eyes of the twenty-somethings in the room shot open wide and began darting wildly around the room. I could see them glancing at each other aghast at my question. “What did you say?” asked my son. I repeated my sentence as I casually made my way towards the kitchen, but the rush to inform me of my error in word choice stopped me in my tracks. When did ‘grundles’, the word R-Buckle, Duncan, and my boyfriend, Fred used for food, come to mean ‘that’? Surely, my friends were not going to the cafeteria for anything related to those grundles!
As a fifty-something, I watch more television in the evenings than I should, but in my defense, I am very selective in what I watch. I recently discovered the fabulously funny comedy series, Teachers, on TVLand. In a recent episode, one of Deb Adler’s students said his mother told him he had spunk. Aghast, Mrs. Adler replied, “Tell your mom to stop using the word spunk.” Now, if you are over 50 and like me, you probably have to go to Urban Dictionary and read the now-prevalent definition of ‘spunk’. How can one word mean two totally different things? Who decided that the mid-16th century spirited ‘spunk’ should no longer be used in normal form because it means something else; something we don’t usually talk about in public?
As I thought about these two situations and my expertise with words, I realized that language has moved on over the last 50+ years and that maybe I have been a little lax in my studies. Understandably, local words that are made up, such as ‘grundles’ by a 1980s high school cohort, do not belong to those who coined them. Regardless, those who used the term in its original form should still get to use it without being chastised or treated like they are behind the times-it was our word first. I’m sorry that someone came after us and turned it into something that should not be spoken in the living room during family time or used to describe their child who plays soccer-but we used it first. So, the next time you hear your aunt say a sentence such as, Little Johnny lost his thong while running for grundles, but he still showed spunk, remember, she used those words first!