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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | businese | “staying home and snuggling”)

An example of a word that has come and gone. “Cocooning” became a popular word in the early 1990’s, as I recall, to denote a “new” form of recreation. Instead of going out, let’s stay home and watch a video together on the sofa. Better yet, let’s do it every night. The connections to contemporary trends like growing numbers of childless couples, the rise of video rentals, and tough economic times were obvious, and “cocooning” had a brief flurry as the next big lifestyle thing. Were more people really entertaining themselves that way at the time? Maybe, but I doubt it—lots of people did the same thing before; lots of people do the same thing now. But for that moment in history, the word for it took off, took its turn on everyone’s lips, and quickly faded. You don’t hear it much now, and you can’t use it without a dose of irony.

Actually, the usage was invented by Faith Popcorn in the mid-1980’s and started to appear around the time of the 1987 economic crisis, and for a time it was still more likely to be used during recessions, which made the word a bit of a bellwether, I suppose, like “recession” itself. (I haven’t seen it much during our latest round of economic travails.) Its older meaning, which has never been common but which has never disappeared, either, was “wrapping in a protective (sometimes, by implication, impervious) layer or coating.” It is used literally and metaphorically — as well as reflexively and non-reflexively — in that sense. And the later sense of “cocooning” has not disappeared altogether, but it comes up much more in the former British Commonwealth than in the U.S. nowadays. The word did make a brief comeback after September 11, but its heyday ended with the 1990’s.

I saw “cocoon” used to mean “contain” (“keep from spreading”) recently, and I assume that was just a misusage (Newsday, Nov. 22, 2010, Patricia Kitchen, “Grab deals, stay productive at work”). The author made a point of putting the word in quotation marks, so she probably thought so, too.


(2000’s | “important,” “crucial”)

This word was already in wide use as an attributive adjective in my youth. But you didn’t hear it used as a predicate adjective after a copula. (In other words, you often heard phrases like “a key reason for our success,” but you didn’t hear “Communication is key if you want a good relationship.”). It sounds like a bigger change than it is. Something deep in my brain still pauses briefly every time I hear “key” used that way after a linking verb, but it’s a pretty natural and obvious evolution.

An adjective to watch in light of what’s happened to “key” is “core.” Thirty years ago it was not common to use “core” as an adjective, attributively or otherwise, except maybe in a phrase like “core meltdown” or that chestnut from academese, “core curriculum.” In his 2011 State of the Union address. President Obama referred to “core values,” and it didn’t sound strange or strained at all. In thirty years, when confronted with free enterprise or self-determination, will the president nod sagely and say, “That’s core”?


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