The Way It Was: How language changes -- witha few examples

by JOHN STRAKA | CORRESPONDENT Published:

Language is not static. New words are introduced, grow into common use for a time and then are discarded as being out-of-date. The need for any individual word may change over time.

Language is always evolving. Some words stay the same but their meaning changes. I think the two most common words that have changed meaning since I was a child are square and gay.

Square used to mean solid, good, well done, strong and-or honest. A very good tasting, filling and satisfying meal was a "square meal." President Franklin D Roosevelt was in office during the Great Depression and he often talked about his plans for a "square deal" for all Americans.

Any big, strong and dependable man would be described as square. There was a popular song with a line that went something like this, "There's something there that sounds so square." I think that was in a song about Mary being a grand old name.

Now the same word means someone who is old-fashioned, out-of-date or out-of-style. Someone who has not kept up with the times and is living in the past.

Gay is another word that has changed its meaning. Most people have at least heard of the Gay Nineties. That was a time when living was easy. People were having fun.

The country had recovered from the Civil War and business was booming. Everyone was having a gay old time. Those good times led to the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

The word gay meant happy, joyful, carefree. A song, popular in those days, included the words, "when we were happy and gay."

PARIS WAS often referred to as Gay Paree, because it was a place where people could really enjoy themselves in a wholesome way. Maybe a bit risqué but not obscene. Now it seems everyone uses the word gay in an totally different way.

You can get into trouble if you use it the way it was meant to be used. Some words change meaning very quickly. When our astronauts first stepped on the surface of the moon, it was the first ever moonwalk.

Not long after that, Michael Jackson made a dance move popular and it became known as the moonwalk. A few years from now, children will grow up knowing the modern definition and not the original one.

Organized gangs are a problem today. Gang warfare leads to crimes that may include murder. Gang members are thought of as being rough, tough and engaged in criminal activities. That's a far cry from what a gang was in the days of my youth.

How many readers remember the song about that Old Gang Of Mine? It includes a line about "what I'd give to see that old gang of mine." A gang was a group of people who got along well together. It could mean a peaceful crowd.

Cool used to be a word to describe temperature. A cool drink on a hot summer day was refreshing. You could enjoy a cool breeze. If your soup was too hot, you could wait for it to cool. In our modern world, if you're not up to date on the latest styles and fashions, you just aren't cool. Cool is the opposite of square.

I'd like to know just how many elementary school students are more familiar with the mouse on a computer than the one I caught in a trap under my back porch about 30 years ago?

My parents and grandparents never knew anything about a modern mouse, but they were very familiar with the ones they might find in their chicken coop or in their pantry.

I HAVE A pot roast in my freezer. I'll cook it with onions, carrots and potatoes in a pot. Modern pot will not be one of the ingredients. I'll eat pot roast for supper, not smoke it to get high. With all the modern already prepared foods, there is a diminishing demand for a pot to cook in, and if the time comes to really cook something it will probably be in a saucepan and not a pot.

People enjoy a vacation in a variety of ways. Some go camping, fishing or hunting. Some travel to far away places, or maybe visit out-of-town relatives. Cruises are popular.

One of the old-time vacation activities used to be to spend a week on a dude ranch. A dude in that case was a city person who was temporarily a western cowboy. Dressed in a traditional cowboy outfit and riding a horse somewhere "out West" was a great way to enjoy a vacation.

Today, a dude is just another ordinary guy. The term has nothing at all to do with horses. It might even be offensive for a person who lives out West to call someone a dude just because he is from Chicago or New York.

Three words that have double meanings are fin, sawbuck and C-note. A fin is part of a fish, a sawbuck is a wooden device used to hold irregular shaped pieces of wood for cutting with a handsaw. A C-note is a musical note played on a piano or other instrument.

I remember when it was common to hear those words used with another meaning. A $5 bill was called a fin. A $10 bill was known as a sawbuck because the large Roman numeral for ten was a large X and that's the way both ends of a real sawbuck looks.

A $100 bill was a C-note because the letter C stood for a century, and was from the same root word as centurion, centigrade and centimeter.

The Roman Numeral for 100 is a C. I'm not up-to-date on modern slang so I don't know if there are more words like that, but I'll bet some younger folks do.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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