New Words, Old Words, and Meanings, by Missy G. Flinn
A new word popped up in the New York Times a few weeks ago: ‘doomscrolling.’
I don’t have to explain what it means; the meaning is inherent and tied to this particular context. I am lured by the prospect of doomscrolling every day. I catch up with the numbers: how many new COVID-19 cases and how many people have died globally, nationally, in Ohio, and in counties around Ohio. I catch up with the protests, where they are taking place around the world, across the United States, and in my state. I don’t want to become numb to the fact that many people’s lives have been upended, lost. But the grief builds up to a crescendo and goes nowhere, as if quarantined in my body. It weighs my soul down. I have to stop myself from doomscrolling too much. Time for some ‘joyscrolling.’
When a word encapsulates a feeling, a trend, or a condition of being it’s like magic. Right now the world around us is changing rapidly, and we need new words to describe it. And fast. This pandemic has been rife with new words and phrases, neologisms that would have had no meaning to us before our perpetual ‘right now.’ The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the new words ‘Covid-19,’ ‘infodemic,’ ‘social distancing,’ ‘social recession,’ and ‘WFH,’ which means “working (or work) from home, either as a regular or permanent alternative to office work or on an occasional or temporary basis.” To which I’d like to respond with my own neo-acronym: ‘IWBMAYOR”, or “I’m Working, Bother Me At Your Own Risk.”
I love words and adore flipping through the pages of the OED. It is a record of neologisms, first sightings of words and how their usage has changed over time. Every time I open it I find out something new. And ancient.
This time of ‘pause’ (has this word too been hijacked into a new meaning?) brings to mind this piece of wisdom from the fourth century BCE philosopher Zhuang Zhou:
The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.
In an ever-changing world of words, I try to follow two short—and sometimes hairy—guidelines.
1. Use words wisely and clearly.
Put your words on the table and understand what they mean to you. If that’s not how the other person understands the word, ask them to define what the word means to them. Listen and discern what their understanding of what the word means. This matters.
If you are not on the same page about a word or words, the effect can be unintentionally insulting or even deeply hurtful. I recently got into a bit of trouble describing myself using the word ‘heterodox’ with a friend who is a priest. We had completely different understandings of the word. To me, it meant “unconventional, taking into account other points of view or ways of analyzing things.” To him it meant “heretical.” We were both correct, but ouch. Then again, I have heterodox ways of thinking about words and could have anticipated this misunderstanding. And, to be honest, I was using the word in a somewhat provocative way. My bad.
2. Be silent.
Words can fail the face of awe and mystery. Be still and let the words go.