Q: What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
A: You can’t make custard in a buffalo! - Badum-Tish!
It’s an old joke, I know, but that’s my point. When I first heard it, the punchline was, ‘You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo!’
Both punchlines were equally good back in the ‘70s, but they don’t both work for a modern audience.
What we used to call a ‘wash hand basin’ is now generally referred to as a ‘sink’, which might be because we no longer wash dishes in a sink; that’s what dishwashers are for.
What used to be ‘cool’ is now ‘sick’, and what used to be ‘gross’ is now ‘jank’ - a particularly unpleasant word, mostly because of the onomatopoeia - and I can’t tell you what happened to ‘chav’, except that, locally at least, it’s fine to be a ‘chav’ so long as you don’t turn into a ‘piky’.
My point is twofold: The language is forever changing, and I say ‘Yay!’ to that. On the whole, I rather like the emergence of new odds and ends of slang. I do take exception to some word usage, usually the corruptions that hail from the other side of the Pond, but, for the most part, I am happy enough to see the language grow, for new words to appear and for old ones to take on new meanings. It was ever thus. I studied Shakespeare and Chaucer, and I love to listen to the husband reciting scraps of Anglo-Saxon texts (OK... scads and scads of the stuff, because I have a small fetish for the sounds that come out of his mouth, but that’s another story), and the very fact that we don’t speak that English any more makes it seem even more poetic, even more beautiful when we read it or hear it afresh.
I also rather enjoy the changes because they root me in my own upbringing. In short, they show my age, my class and my education. The slang I use and the way I talk to people has changed over the years; of course it has. However, I cannot and never will be able to say, ‘You go girl!’ without sounding very odd; and, by the same token, no one bats an eye when I call them ‘dearheart’.
The real wonder is that I can root my characters, too... not in my time, place or class, but in their own. With a little effort, with a little care, I can evoke all kinds of things with the use of language. I need not describe these things, I need only use the appropriate word. What my daughter might call ‘a teddy’ easily becomes ‘cami-knickers’, a ‘petticoat’ becomes a ‘slip’, and a catsuit becomes a jumpsuit, becomes a one-sy; A ‘CD player’ becomes ‘hi-fi‘ becomes a ‘gramophone’; the ‘wireless‘ becomes a ‘transistor radio’, becomes a ‘boom-box‘ becomes ‘DAB’.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve proved my point. Don’t tell them, but I love listening to kids talk just as much as I love reading an early novel or hearing a bit of Shakespeare recited properly. It would be easy to suggest that we’re generations separated by the same language, but it’s not true; all of our lives are enriched by the changing landscape of our language, and all of us have the capacity to adapt, to embrace the new and to keep alive some of the words and expressions we remember from our own young lives.