‘Skedaddle,’ ‘Selfie,’ and Many More Words of the Generations

October 14, 2015 | By Allan Metcalf

What if everyone born within a particular generation shared the same view of the world, a view that was different from that of generations before and after?

(Full disclosure: I’m going to shamelessly encourage you to buy my new book.)

Hard to believe,  if you think about it — everyone born during a 20-year period in the whole country having the same attitudes and inclinations to action? Yet we’ve come to believe it, as we knowingly discuss the traits of the different generations — the heroic GI generation (born 1901-1924) that fought World War II, for example; the “silent generation” (born 1925-1942) of quiet conformists that followed, to be replaced and overrun by baby boomers (see below), then beleaguered  Generation X (born 1961-1981), and then those lovable irrepressible millennials (born 1982-2004) who dominate colleges and the workplace now.

And what happens if the generations really do think differently, as William Strauss and Neil Howe seductively argued in their 1991 book Generations? Well, in that case their words should reflect the differences. And I think they do.

Some words are limited to the generations that used them — like flapper and 23 skiddoo for the so-called lost generation (born 1883-1900), for example, or love-in and groovy for the boomers (born 1943-1960).  (The boom in population was 1946-1964, but  Strauss and Howe look at changing attitudes rather than population growth. Either way, the distinctive words are the same.)

Other words were introduced or emphasized by particular generations but have become the property of us all:  jazz from the lost generation, for example, andhippie, lifestyle, self-esteem, and blended family from the boomers.

The GI generation gave us swell and gung ho and doggie bag. The Silents were the first to be teenagers and babysitters and listened to rock ‘n’ roll— no wonder they weren’t much interested in politics, as their elders complained. No such worry about the rebellious boomers, who brought us flower power, trip, andpsychedelic. Generation X had slackers and grunge and whatever, while the millennials embrace selfies and friend each other, but are online so much (because of FOMO) that in person they often are awkward.

Think so? All those and a hundred more such words, going back to the time of the Republican generation (born 1742-1766; unalienable, gerrymander) are in my new book From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations. It’s officially published (by Oxford University Press) next month, but it’s available now. Go ahead, read it and see whether you buy my explanation of the words I chose.

And if you think I missed one of your favorites, let me know.  I might include it in the second edition.