FROM THE DEEP END: In other words…

Brenda Kelley Kim. Photo by Stevo Rood

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work,” — Carl Sandburg

As any writer will tell you, words matter, and there are millions of them available. And, if we can’t find the right words, we can make some up. Recently, a good friend argued that the word I used was made up. My reply?

 “All words are made up.”

I mean, the first person to stumble out of a cave and try to communicate had to figure out what to call a rock or a club, right? How else would they survive when a giant wooly mammoth came along? With words, they could yell, “Hey, bring me that rock and my club, that big hairy elephant is back.”

Okay, it probably didn’t go down like that, but there are studies that show neanderthals could perceive and produce human speech. Thankfully, it evolved, as did humans, leaving behind some of the beasts. From that moment on, language existed because people started making up words. There’s no point at which you can “shut off” language development. We’re so not done.

That’s why we have slang. Slang words and phrases are the most fluid of all languages because many appear and then, just as quickly, disappear. When was the last time you heard anyone call someone a “yuppie?” The new way to describe what we meant by that in the 1980s is “bougie.” If someone calls you bougie, you might be a yuppie.

My father, born in 1929, was a member of the Greatest Generation. When we first moved to town, he noticed that many of our neighbors had big sailboats, expensive cars and houses, and said, “I think we’re surrounded by swells.” He did not mean the ocean current or the waves, I think he meant bougie.

That’s how slang works; it’s a bit like the tide: It constantly comes in and out and leaves behind a changed landscape. Every generation adds to language, so we’re all making up words. A friend’s dad had a habit of “collecting profundities” , many of which he thought up himself. You know those little tags people put on gifts to say who it’s for and from? Her family grew up calling them “ToFrums,” and now I do too.

In our house, my parents were equally creative. When my father wanted something sweet, like a piece of cake or some ice cream, he’d say, “Let’s jump in the car and go for fudgy whoops.”  Fudgy whoops could mean anything from an ice cream to a black and white cookie at the bakery. When my mother would want to go for a walk, she’d say she was “getting a good foot under her,” but my brother and I learned to call it a GW for “gawk walk” because we knew she was looking to be nosy and watch people coming and going around town.

In addition to new words, developing language also means we give new meaning to existing words, even changing the part of speech. A brick is a rectangular piece of created stone. Over the weekend, my phone was “bricked,” which doesn’t mean it hit the bricks of my patio; it means it stopped working. Now, it’s about as useful for communicating as a brick would be — unless I throw it at someone, but that is an unwise move.

We even changed how we use brand names. On vacation in Hawaii last year, I Ubered to the beach, where I got Maytagged by a big wave. Then I FaceTimed my daughter to see if she could help me Photoshop the pictures so I could Instagram them. She was busy YouTubing how to Xerox something, so she just told me to Google it.

Words will always be fluid and change with the times. Purists will try to come in clutch, waving a dictionary around and ranting about standards, but no cap; changing how we use language is a handy tool, so get out there and upskill yourself.

Brenda Kelley Kim has lived in Marblehead for 50 years, and is an author, freelance writer, and mother of three. Her column appears weekly.