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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

lanyard

(1990’s)

You’d be surprised at how many meanings this word has — anyway, I was. They’re all related to the notion of a strap (going back to Middle French and Old High German), and that association holds true even in these latter days. A hundred years ago, its primary meanings were: a strong rope used to help secure ship’s rigging, cord used to fire a cannon, strip of leather used to hold a snowshoe (for example) together, and another nautical reference, which evolved directly into today’s use of the word: the cord a sailor hung his knife on so he could carry it around his neck. “Lanyard” has a few other miscellaneous meanings as well: chinstrap (on a hat), summer camp favorite (the lanyard as craft project seems to date back at least to the middle of the twentieth century), what the referee wears a whistle on (back to the sailors again), military decoration (worn on the shoulder), part of a safety harness. When used to help construction workers secure their tools, lanyards aren’t just for necks any more; they can attach to shoulder or wrist as well. By and large, the old meanings are still active, and probably no less common than they ever were. Around them has sprung up a new field that calls on lucrative forces of the Zeitgeist like security, fashion, and commerce, commerce, commerce. Now we have Lanyards USA, Lanyards Tomorrow, and CustomLanyard.net.

If the old meanings are still around and there aren’t any new ones, why an entry? Just my sense that the word has become vastly more popular. It may have meant a lot of things in its storied past, but it always had a specialized air about it. Nowadays, though, you hear it everywhere — everybody from lowly janitors to Super Bowl spectators wears one. And it’s being applied in ways it never was before. Now “lanyard” is what you call the cord or chain you hang your glasses on around your neck; in my youth, plenty of people wore their glasses around their necks, but not on lanyards. It was always true that the lanyard, whatever it denoted, had a strongly utilitarian cast. But not any more; lanyards still serve everyday functions, but they also should match your clothes or sparkle or advertise or say something interesting. An accessory at the very least, potentially more.

The lanyard revolution is more than anything a consequence of our efforts to keep ourselves safe, which has made us ID-happy. Why do you need a lanyard at the Super Bowl, or to get into your office? So you can display your credentials and prove that you belong there. Sure, people carry keys and other household objects around their necks, too, but your standard lanyard nowadays comes with the clear plastic ID-holder, so you never have to dig out your card to show the guard. In the seventies, members of a few professions were using lanyards for that purpose, but now almost any public employee and lots of private ones wear them as a matter of course. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that we have accepted increasing restrictions on our movements in hopes of preventing, or at least limiting, mayhem and bloodshed. Lanyards are an emblem of that loss of freedom, another component of the uniform that the wealthy, ever security-conscious (and for good reason), force on the masses. Adding insult to injury, the bosses and big money want us to regard the badge of servitude as just one more consumer good. If they succeed, we lose again.

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