New words show Americans talk about sex, health

December 16, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

They say you can learn a lot about a culture by its language. If that's the case, Americans seem to have become obsessed with sex and health in the last 10 years.

That's one of the findings lexicographer Anne Soukhanov and her team of 175 language specialists discovered researching new words for the American Heritage Dictionary Third Edition ($39.95). They studied words that came into common usage during the last 10 years.

HIV. Fitness walking. Kiss and tell. Immunodeficiency. T-cells. Stress test. Kaposi's sarcoma. Significant other. Cholesterol. Domestic partner.

"These new words either did not exist a few years ago or they were known only to people who worked in specialized fields," Ms. Soukhanov said. She and her staff spent six years deciding which new words to use in the reference book. They reviewed everything from sports magazines to medical books. They marked each time a new word or new meaning was given, then cross-referenced these new words and meanings to similar publications that were 10 years old to verify any changes. Finally, they compared them to newspaper indexes.

"Newspapers are the first to pick up new words," Ms. Soukhanov said. "They were the first to use words like 'homeboy' and 'slam dunk.' "

The language specialists also checked a word's staying power.

"We had to make sure it has been in the mainstream vocabulary for at least five years," she said.

" 'Sputnik,' 'Ayatollah,' 'Watergate' and 'AIDS' are all examples of words that seemed to enter our vocabulary overnight," Ms. Soukhanov said. "They were words that were popularized by the media. They have since become so common people immediately know what you mean when you use them."

Talking heads. Date rape. Serial killer. Those are just a few of the 16,000 new words or phrases that change the way we live and speak. Words that reflect our growing concern with the media, sex and crime in the last 10 years or so.

Besides new words and phrases,the specialists studied new word meanings. "Cocoon," "crack" and "spin" have taken on new dimensions over the last decade, for example.

Although slang was a big influence on some of the new words, most are from the fields of health, technology, or politics.

Let's see how common these words have become. Here's how %% you may describe a typical morning routine: An AM-FM stereo cassette digital clock radio wakes you up. You get out of bed, log on to your PC to check for messages, then head to the living room. You put away a couple of CDs lying on the floor and program your VCR to tape the day's soaps. Then you grab your Walkman and go power walking with your neighbor, leaving the kids with your significant other.

Sound familiar? Well, the scenario may be old, but many of the words or expressions are new.

Ten years ago you woke up to a simple alarm clock. There were vinyl records -- albums -- lying on the floor, VCRs were almost unheard of, and people would have thought you crazy if you told them you were taping your soaps. "Power walking" with your neighbor sounded like a business meeting.

In the last decade, rap music and music videos have popularized words or phrases from black culture, such as "hip hop," "dis" (to disrespect) and "igg" (to ignore). These words made it into the dictionary.

As did many regional terms. But Ms. Soukhanov expects to see more in the next edition.

"With the election of a Southern president I expect a lot of us will start using Southern words," she said.

During the campaign, Bill Clinton's use of Southern regional terms left a lot Northerners wondering what he was saying, Ms. Soukhanov said, for instance, when "he said he was going to tump George Bush. . . . " 'Tump' means to knock over or overturn."

Mr. Clinton's little-known "tump" made it into the dictionary. But a more well-known Bushism didn't.

A few years ago while speaking to a college crowd, President Bush used the term "politically correct" to describe pressure imposed on conservative college students to be liberal.

"Politically correct" didn't make the dictionary. Said Ms. Soukhanov, "We don't know yet if it has staying power."

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