By Ned Cantwell
Merriam-Webster brought out is first Collegiate Dictionary back in 1898. It was a very thin book, because people did not need many words back then. There was much more grunting and pointing in those days.
The first dictionary primarily concerned itself with the definitions of “yes,” “no,” and “I’m hungry.”
Early editions, too, gave special attention to a phrase that was popular among frontier wives who would wait until their husbands just about nodded off before asking, “Did you lock the barn?”
In these modern times, when talk TV itself uses up millions of words each hour, Merriam-Webster has grown fat. Its 11th edition, announced last week, includes 10,000 new words and more than 100,000 new meanings in a book that ballooned to 225,000 definitions.
The reasons we have so many new words is that Americans don’t like certain words so they make up new ones to take their place.
For example, the car dealer did not want to sell me a “used” truck, so he sold me one that was “pre-owned.” Not only that, it was a “program” vehicle, apparently programmed so that the brakes would wear out quickly.
There is one company in southern New Mexico that found it distasteful to lay off people, so, instead, it announced a “temporary inventory outage.” Another company had a hard time admitting it was “selling” part of its business that might result in job loss. So, instead, it explained it had “monetized an asset.”
Monetizing assets. That’s good. We had a “garage extravaganza” last weekend where we “monetized” a lot of “pre-owned household treasures” many might call “junk.”
There is one state association that refuses to join the modern trend of substituting pretty words for ugly ones. I refer, of course, to the New Mexico Dental Association whose members do not employ euphemisms.
“Drilling,” for instance, is a horrible word unless you are an oilman and have part of the action. It’s not something you want to happen inside your mouth.
Worse than that is “root canal.” The phrase sends shivers down the spine. I have been a patient of Bob Murray enough years to buy him a second home in Santa Fe. The good doctor has one of those easy-going natures designed to relax the patient.
“So, how’s the newspaper business?” he’ll ask, his arm down my throat to his elbow.
“Glogg, pflewf, ylef, glap,” I’ll answer, none of those words having yet found its way into the Collegiate.
“Well, now, let me tell you where we stand here. This doesn’t look too good. We can either do a root canal or just let it alone, in which case the infection will probably spread through your entire body and kill you within three weeks.”
“Well, OK, umm, root canal, let me think on it a few days, Dr. Bob.”
If my car dealer can sell me a “program vehicle” and a company can “monetize an asset,” I don’t see why my dentist can’t perform a “smile enhancement procedure” instead of a “root canal.”
Such observations, of course, are par for the course if you are stuck with my McJob (according to the new dictionary, low-paying and dead-end work.)
Ned Cantwell of Ruidoso is a retired newspaper publisher and member of the New Mexico Press Association Hall of Fame. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org