I’m not talking about trying to keep my mind sharp—and avoid dementia—by learning Chinese. I tried that once, and it didn’t work.
But every day, it seems, I encounter new words or phrases that are unfamiliar. I spent my life working as a writer and editor and thought I knew language better than most people. I know the difference between reign and rein, between palate and palette. But then I encountered “woke,” “meme,” “influencer” and other words that weren’t in my vocabulary.
Because these words have become omnipresent in this culture, I’ve learned what they mean, although I don’t understand how “woke” is different from someone becoming “awakened” to the injustices in our society. I have an idea what “meme” means, although I couldn’t give you a thorough definition, only an example: the phrase, “OK, Boomer,” has become a meme, and it’s not a nice thing to say about baby boomers.
If I’m behind the times, it’s because these words or phrases emerged from a culture of which I’m no longer a part—or at least I’m on the sidelines now, with a non-active role. The new language comes from movies and TV shows that appeal to younger people and from social media platforms that I don’t belong to—like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram.
A few months ago, I discovered “culture canceling”—in which, if you’re too woke, you get angry at people who are not woke enough. For example, if you’re in the #MeToo community and you say something that questions the party line, you’re immediately “canceled” from the #MeToo online culture: berated, shamed and cast off. Before the advent of the Internet, it’s how indigenous cultures would ostracize those who misbehaved: sent off to live alone for a period of time—separated from their culture.
As a word person, I love how language evolves to fit the current world. I recently learned about “sadfishing”: when someone exaggerates—usually online–their emotional state in order to get sympathy or attention from their audience. Or “doxxing,” when you post personal documents online about someone you want to punish—private information that could potentially embarrass or hurt them. I admire these language inventions at the same time I cringe at the cruelty of our times.