It’s not just every generation that believes its toys and trappings and ways to be wholly natural, and to have been around since the dawn of time. Even well within generational parameters, we tend to forget that trends and fads in which we get swept up weren’t around when we were children. Take three rather insipid phrases:
Back in the day. I rate this one as maybe ten years old. Certainly no one was saying it in 1998, and I think its birthday is probably more recent by several years.
So… The use of this little conjunction indicating the approach of a result clause to begin a response where no clear condition precedes it in the speaker’s utterance is, perhaps, five years old. Maybe a tad more. You would always have said in the late, not-so-great twentieth century (and the other “so”–the adverb–appears in my hyphenated modifier), “The shoes wouldn’t fit, so [as a result] I sent them back.” Today we hear interviewers launch long questions to which guests respond with an initial “so”. “The market seems unconcerned about the national debt. Could it be that the risk you identify is all a matter of perception?” “So… we need to understand that every economy in the world is at least as fragile as ours.” Very, very fuzzy connecting.
Not so much. Employing this phrase to express, “Not at all!” in ironic understatement has been going on for about five years, as well, by my reckon. Again, you certainly would not have heard it in 2002, and I don’t think even 2007 saw its birth. It’s of great interest to me that oral societies engage in such understating (the fancy technical term for which is litotes) all the time. When Oedipus was struck by an arrogant charioteer (his father, as he unfortunately failed to realize at the time) and recompenses the man by killing him, he proudly recollects, “He didn’t pay me back the same amount.” Gaelic bards would often praise a chieftain by declaring something on the order of, “Not light was his blow,” or, “Not timid was his step into battle.”
Some of our latest coinages do indeed suggest to me that we’re slipping back into a pre-literate habit of thinking and feeling. Our electronic gadgets are luring us ever farther from the productive challenges of writing. That’s a topic for another day. All I mean to say now is that we should remember how much in flux are the comfy little customs and habits with which we surround ourselves. Especially when we seek to travel back in history or far afield into another culture, we should attempt to erase from our consciousness all the shallow presumptions we make. Phrases that we ourselves once spouted at least once a day (like the mysteriously sports-indexed curiosity, “the whole nine yards”) have utterly vanished. Why, then, should we expect another culture to comprehend our perplexity about how to label restrooms, which is… what? About a year old?
The disturbing truth is that we’re most willing to let go of moral principles grounded in human nature and common sense, while our fads represent those habits to which we demand a right as “human beings”, of all things!