MacMurray College professor's book defines generations by the words they use
November 26, 2015 | By David Blanchette
JACKSONVILLE — Khara Koffel, who chairs the art department at MacMurray College, laughed as she recalled an interaction she had recently with her office mate, an author and fellow professor.
“I was the original one to ever take a selfie with Dr. Metcalf,” Koffel said. “I was his first selfie, which I hold as a trophy in my life. The guy that literally wrote the book that includes the word ‘selfie,’ and I selfied him first.”
The “guy that literally wrote the book” is English professor Allan Metcalf, and the book is “From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations.” It’s an etymological, cultural and historical journey through deadlines and dudes, senior moments and scalawags, hipsters and hippies, teenagers and tramp stamps, gung-ho and geeks, dorks and doggie bags, and the dreaded Queen Mother of curse words. In other words, it’s about those other words adopted and used by each successive generation.
“My favorite word that characterizes current generations is ‘selfie,’ which is such a wonderful word because it characterizes an attitude as well as a practice,” Metcalf said. “The practice is taking selfies, and the attitude is that I will make the world a better place by putting a picture of myself with a duck face on the Internet.”
“From Skedaddle to Selfie” examines 130 words that characterize the attitudes of each generation from the Republican Generation, born from 1742 to 1766, through the Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 2004. Metcalf also touches on the Homeland Generation, those born since 2005, but suggests that many of their generational words have yet to be adopted.
“There’s the ‘flapper’ for the 1920s, a certain kind of young women who had a certain kind of attitude. That word is gone because the flapper personality is gone,” Metcalf said. “Then there are words like ‘slackers’ for Generation X. The millennials actually like the word ‘awkward.’ They say ‘awkward’ to each other, often with the ‘turtle’ hand gesture. I think it’s because millennials are so wrapped up in electronic communication that sometimes communicating face to face can be awkward.”
Metcalf said the Boom Generation introduced “streaking” to the lexicon, and he added that “the book is a little bit for mature audiences” because that generation “brought the ‘F-word’ into general circulation.”
“I have quite a story about that in my book,” he said. “The Boom Generation was exceedingly influential, so I have things like ‘hippie’ and ‘groovy’ — there was a time you could actually say ‘groovy’ with a straight face.”
He also likes the word “swell.”
“’That was a swell job,’ or ‘that was a swell picnic,’” he said. “That’s from the GI Generation, and people know the word nowadays, but you wouldn’t say it.”
“The ones that I emphasized, the ones that I have the most words for, are the current living generations,” Metcalf added. “The millennials are all over the place here at MacMurray, so I could observe them in action.”
His office mate, Koffel, was among the test subjects.
“I believe I was serving as a contemporary reference point for some of the more recent words,” she said. “More recently, Dr. Metcalf and I have spoken about the words ‘icon’ and ‘basic.’”
Metcalf said he got the idea for “From Skedaddle to Selfie” from a 1990 book titled “Generations,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, that “made the ridiculous claim that everybody born in a certain 20-year period shares certain attitudes, and it’s different for each 20-year period,” he said. “It’s full of anecdotes and research, but one thing they don’t have in this 500-page book is words. If this hypothesis is true, then you should be able to find words that go with each particular generation, and I did.”
“Every word has not just an etymology but a story about how it is used,” Metcalf added. “You look for the interesting words, then you look for the circumstances in which they were used, and then research works that were written for contemporary audiences of the time. Once you have identified a word, you can find a lot of examples of the use of it.”
This research method fascinates Koffel, who experienced it firsthand while Metcalf was writing “From Skedaddle to Selfie.”
“It’s always interesting when he stumbles upon a word or a phrase in his research and then proceeds to really scour the Internet for everything he can find, which often leads to interesting songs,” Koffel said. “I heard a lot of Cole Porter for a while, and when he became very interested in the word ‘selfie,’ he played the YouTube video for the word selfie. I don’t know who actually wrote the song, but that was tumbling out of his office many a time.”
Metcalf feels the greatest word of all American generations is ‘OK.’ In fact, in a previous book, “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” he makes a convincing argument for his ranking. But it was his research into the words of his own generation that generated the most surprises.
“I’m the tail end of the Silent Generation, and we were the first to be known as ‘teenagers.’ Not that they didn’t have people of that age in previous generations, but the notion of the teenager as being a kind of distinct person from other age groups came about during the time of my generation,” he said. “The word ‘babysitter’ was from my Silent Generation. Even ‘trick-or-treat’ started with my generation.”
Metcalf is the author of six books on language, posts weekly to the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and consults with attorneys on matters of language and law. He is also the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society and started that group’s annual vote on Word of the Year, which for 2014 was ‘hashtag.’ The nominations for 2015 Word of the Year are wide open.
“For the past couple of years, I was trying to get ‘selfie’ as the Word of the Year, but we vote on it, and I’m not a dictator,” Metcalf said.
“I hope my next book will be about bias-free language and political correctness,” he said. “It’s a little difficult to deal with, but if I get it just right, it’ll be useful.”