Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fashions in Words

A discussion on spontaneity had me asserting that what the word had once meant in popular speech say in the time of World War II—namely untaught, natural behavior—has had an odd lift in the Age of the Media to mean something more. The word derives from the Latin sponte, of one’s accord, willingly. The new meaning carries the flavor as of a characteristic which rises above the behavior of ordinary humans. To make this point, I also tried to find a word that has lost rank in popular usage. Neurotic came to mind. It seemed to me that it had been on everybody’s lips in the 1950s. The word shrink arose in this context. I headed off to look at these words and Brigitte wanted me to look up shrink as well. Her feeling is that it has also lost status.

Google Ngrams to the rescue. Herewith the contrast between “spontaneous” and “deliberate”:

Spontaneous has certainly had a quite marked rise beginning circa 1925. The word peaked in 1982 but is still beating Deliberate in 2000. Deliberate, meanwhile, was at essentially the same level of usage as in 1800.

In the next one I contrast “neurotic” and “psychotic”:

My gut feel turns out to be right. Neurotic made a mountain that peaked in 1952—and its been downhill since. I used Psychotic as the contrast, which began rising later, peaked in 1972, and is now used somewhat more frequently than neurotic. Perhaps things are getting worse.

Shrink comes from head-shrinker, slang for psychiatrist. Plotting its use using Ngram is not much use because the short version can mean anything from physically shrinking something or the slang phrase, which may not be much used in written documents. Since 1940, however, that word has lost about 7 percent of its usage, so Brigitte’s feel is also justified.

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