One of the delights – and occasional frustrations – of English is its protean quality, its limitless capacity to embrace and abandon words and usages. In 2011, an article in Science, “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” (courtesy of Google), estimated that our lexicon grew by some 8,500 words per year between 1950 and 2000, though many of these additions will never make it into a dictionary. Even as words are born or employed in new ways, others wither from disuse, and what was familiar and acceptable to our grandparents may well be alien to us, and vice versa.
Take the word “contact.” In Funk & Wagnalls’ mammoth New Standard Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1930, “contact” does not appear at all as a transitive verb, and its intransitive form (as in “to be in contact with”) is designated “rare.” But nouns have a habit of turning into verbs, and by 1988, 65 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel approved of the following sentence: “She immediately called an officer at the Naval Intelligence Service, who in turn contacted the FBI.” And by 2004, the percentage of panelists who gave this sentence their blessing had risen to 94 percent.
A word that didn’t exist at all until the middle of the 20th century was “nerd,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person,” “a person who is boringly conventional or studious,” or “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.” The appearance of “nerd” in our lexicon is attributed by many to Dr. Seuss, who depicted a creature of this name in If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. By 1951, Newsweek was able to observe, “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” Although still considered slang, nerds abound in a way that drips and squares no longer do. At least for now.