My Story: Learning a New Language

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.

8 thoughts on “My Story: Learning a New Language

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  1. Your post makes me wonder what words, phrases, and references we used that might have perplexed our parents the way these memes are confounding us. Perhaps there’s a parallel in the ways languages are having to accommodate new technologies: the French, as protective of their language as they are, searching for computer-related terms that aren’t just Frenchified English, for example.

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    1. Jennifer, I’m sure there were phrases we used (“what’s up, daddyo?”) that confounded and irritated our parents, but it seems the pace of new language has sped up with all this technology. I sympathize with the French, but it seems like a losing battle, like trying to stop a tidal wave. And then there’s Joe Biden, using the word “mallarkey.”

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  2. Well expressed. It reminds me of what Princess Alice of Battenberg said on the Netflix series, “The Crown.” Something like: “I find I am no longer a participant in life, but instead, a spectator.”

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  3. Hi Kath! I’m enjoying your blog, nodding as I read, uh-huh, yep. Often when Lynn and I talk, one of us will sigh and say, “It’s not my world anymore.” I have felt like that often enough over the years as technology zips past me, and I have to stop and ask myself, “Is that true?” I don’t want to buy into the fiction that we–Boomers and other retirees and old people–are irrelevant. We know stuff. At almost 75, I am happy to refer to myself as “old.” Like you, I often scratch my head in wonder over the new words that mean nothing to me, and I remember fondly being a teenager and confounding my parents with words they didn’t understand. Life is a spiral.

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    1. Verna, there are times when I feel I must keep up with the world–learn the new language–and other times when it seems trivial and not the place where I want be focused as I get older. In my parents’ old age, my mother tried to keep up–had an iPad and did email–while my father didn’t care at all. All he wanted to do was keep playing his accordion.

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