Language change is often glacial; it can take decades from the time a word first appears to its codification in the dictionary. But like the fantasy of a SEPTA bus that stops only every other block, sometimes things move faster than you expect.
This week we look back on words whose meanings changed in just the last year.
Can’t blame ’em for trying. When the Ohio State University (no, I won’t capitalize the, OSU, and you can’t make me) attempted to trademark the word the, grammarians were apoplectic. The school claimed that the was integral to its brand and therefore needed to be protected; the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office disagreed. The instinct to distinguish your university from the thousands of others in the United States is understandable. Maybe next time don’t try to distinguish yourself with the single most common word in the English language?
In 2019 Merriam-Webster finally caught up with gender identity and added a definition to the word they, enshrining it as the pronoun of choice for individuals who do not identify as he or she. Better late than never. (To their credit, they made up for their lateness by naming they their word of the year.) Plenty of readers still can’t accept that they is the proper singular pronoun to use when the person whom the pronoun is referring to is unknown or ambiguous; I heard from a lot of you who were befuddled by that usage when I wrote about they as a third-person singular pronoun back in January. But they has been a singular pronoun for more than 600 years. Let’s just hope readers become more comfortable with the idea of nonbinary individuals — and give them the respect of proper pronouns — before the year 2600.
Quid pro quo
You know it’s a good year for language when Latin is in the news. The phrase quid pro quo, whose literal translation is “something for something,” has been used in English for 500 years — most commonly in law — to describe an exchange, a this-for-that swap. In 2019, however, quid pro quo was most often used to describe a single act of extortion and bribery. As Donald Trump likes to say: Read the transcript. I did, and it makes quite clear — as has been well-documented — that Trump sought to extort assistance in a political process from Ukraine, and tried to bribe Ukraine’s president with American taxpayer dollars. But for months our political discourse harped on whether there was a quid pro quo; only belatedly did extortion and bribery enter the conversation. By keeping the conversation on an obscure Latin phrase, Trump managed to maintain support when the use of harsher words might have been more damning. Sometimes Latin sheds light on our language, but beware of when it’s obscuring something criminal.
Before 2019, Oreos were a delicious cookie, milk’s best friend, and the subject of one of the decade’s best Onion articles to combine snacking, capitalism, and Pope Francis. But in May, at a House Oversight Committee hearing, Ben Carson revealed that he was unfamiliar with the common term real estate owned property — or REO — despite the fact that he’s the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development. He thought that Rep. Katie Porter was asking him about cookies, and apparently considered his mistake funny enough to tweet about it later. And in one grand PR stroke, Oreos became a symbol for how to embarrass yourself in front of Congress, show gross incompetence in your position, and still manage to keep your job. At least we still have Double Stufs.