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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | new agese | “be possessed or inspired by,” “evoke,” “impersonate,” “embody”)

Once upon a time, there were mediums, whose job it was to communicate with dead people. Someone seeking solace or advice went to a medium and asked him or her to rouse a dead person and get news from or even conversation with a spirit, on the theory that people get wiser or at least more interesting once their brains stop working. Mediums went to some lengths to create a mysterious atmosphere by introducing spooky trappings into their workplaces.

It’s all much more low-key now. The seer now is called a “channeler” and he or she “channels” (serves as a vessel for) spirits that may or may not be dead people. Many new age practitioners posit a hierarchy of spirits, some or all of whom are more analogous to angels than former human beings. The apparatus and atmosphere are dispensed with — no dimmed lights, sudden noises or flashes, occult symbols, etc. The spirit’s words just come out through the channeler’s mouth; the experience is often described as being taken over temporarily by the spirit.

So the channeler has a much easier job than the medium. And the language has profited from a new word, which has spread beyond its original context. If your activities, performance, or turns of phrase remind others strongly of another person, you are said to “channel” that person. It is used most often in entertainment contexts (including sports), where it was established by the late 1990’s in sentences of the form “Actor A was channeling (usually dead or at least retired) Actor B.” (As far as I can tell, the word became current in new age circles during the 1980’s, but it may have been earlier.) It has spread slowly, but now may be encountered in nearly any context.

The verb has been around a long time in another sense: “direct” or “funnel.” This was the general usage in the 1970’s and for a while before that. It happened to energy and money a lot. Moving something to where it will do the most good, or taking control of your own impulses. Back then, an NFL halfback might have said, “I’m channeling my energy so I can hit the hole as hard as I can.” Now he might say, “I’m channeling Jim Brown so I can hit the hole as hard as I can.” The latter usage is more passive; you’re not consciously directing the flow, but letting it take you over and act through you. In the old days, the idea was to take charge and get things where they need to go. Now we just want to go limp and let the spirits do the work.


(2000’s | businese | “giving (as) a gift,” “observing holidays by giving gifts”)

“To gift” has been a verb for a long time, never common, just a recherché way of saying to give something as a gift. And it had a present participle, as verbs so often do, which was “gifting.” It meant “bestowing” or “endowing.” By the mid-20th century, it had taken on fairly specific meanings in anthropology — the customs and practices associated with gift-giving — and finance, where it meant something like “giving gifts large enough to require tax advice”; lawyers and accountants worried about it in the context of estate planning or just helping your kid buy a house. I’ve seen it used pejoratively, connoting impersonal or ostentatious giving, as opposed to the more desirable heartfelt kind. In 1965, Theodore Bernstein (The Careful Writer) listed “gifting” as an example of “odd things the ad men do to verbs,” the sense being simply “giving as a gift.” (“Gift with,” as in “He gifted his wife with a bathrobe” has been around for a long time, too, but it still sounds wrong to me.) It seems to have been less common in the U.S. than in England and former colonies.

It’s a lot more common now all over the English-speaking world. All the old uses are still going strong, as far as I know, and the simplest of those, “giving as a gift,” is well on its way to standard usage if not already there. I don’t think this was an innocent process. There are two specific and fairly recent senses of the term that we owe to businese. One is “corporate gifting,” the kind in which you give gifts to clients or vendors or employees in order to keep their loyalty. In its crudest form it might be mistaken for bribery or kickbacks. (Its complement is “corporate giving,” which goes to charity.) The other sense has to do with the whole industry devoted to creating gifts for people to buy, creating or touting occasions for giving them, and badgering us to do our economic duty. We are expected to size up and seize upon opportunities for gifting, explore gifting alternatives, look for unconventional gifting. At the high end, you have “gifting suites” and “celebrity gifting,” where celebrities can acquire loot or create loot for others to acquire. The corporate usage was picking up in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, while the consumerist usage followed it. The continuing growth of this word comes through these channels.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the verb “to regift,”
which sprang fully formed from a “Seinfeld” episode in 1995 and which has doubtless had an effect on the spread of “to gift” and “gifting.” The word has become, if not common, at least widely understood; it is much bandied about in December and January but can crop up any time of year. It’s a handy term that denotes a fairly common activity that we didn’t have a word for before.

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