Obsolete Words And Phrases

I was toying with an idea for a “period piece” story the other day. Nothing so drastic as Prehistoric or Victorian times, just a short story that takes place in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. And as I was putting things in place in my mind and thinking about how to word some passages, it occurred to me that quite a few of the things that were commonplace in those days, are entirely obsolete today.

Now, that’s not a major brainstorm, I know, but it points out one of the things a writer must consider when writing about a time other than present-day. You have to ask yourself; what things were standard in the past that we have no recollection of today? And obviously the inverse is true if you’re writing about the future; what things so common and useful today will be obsolete and/or unknown 50 years from now? 100 years from now?

When I was a teenager of driving age, I had an 8-track tape player in my car. Today, 35 years later, if you could find an 8-track tape you most likely could not find a player for it. Who has a rotary dial telephone (though isn’t it odd that we still say we “dial” a number?) or a 45 record that they actually play, as opposed to those that are parts of a collection? Do you realize that anyone under the age of 25 would have no idea what you were talking about if you told them you had to adjust the horizontal or vertical on your TV screen? Or that you had to change the ribbon on your typewriter?

Fifty years from now, will computers and laptops as we know them be obsolete? Will we just wirelessly access a network through an implant in our hand to download data? Will cellphones no longer exist because the transceiver is implanted in our head?

It naturally follows; if the “thing” becomes obsolete, most likely the word or term will also. In the 40’s 50’s and 60’s every TV had “rabbit ears”; movable (usually) telescoping antennas that you turned and twisted around or adjusted to get the best over the air signal you could to show on your TV screen. In this day of cable, if you told someone under 30 that you were “fiddling with the rabbit ears” it would garner you a strange look. Although the term “phone” is still attached to our mobile devices such as cellphone or Smartphone, 10 years from now the term will most likely be “mobile”, which is coming more and more into usage every day, especially by our European neighbors.

Many words or phrases or terms become obsolete through simple attrition. No one, unless they’re trying to be funny or recall the 70’s, says “groovy” because it’s a word that simply dropped out of usage. But if you were writing a story that took place in those drug-clouded days, you’d most likely have a character or two who would use the word and within the context of the time it would fit in.

Others become obsolete because they were improper to begin with and are replaced with words that were more appropriate. For instance. the common term used to be “Siamese twins” but, thankfully, today we use the more correct “conjoined twins” and with any luck in 20 years if anyone hears the term “Siamese twins” they’ll think the speaker is referring to cats. Likewise, a person who could not speak was termed “dumb”, but we came to realize their being mute had nothing to do with their intelligence.

These are things a writer must take into account when writing period pieces, to assure the story has the proper context and atmosphere of the time.

While you’re thinking of some obsolete words or phrases from your own life, here’s a fun site that discusses such things each day.

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