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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: nostalgia

blended family

(1980’s | therapese | “stepfamily”)

Contested terrain semantically, as in other, more obvious, ways. Start with the definition. Nowadays, most people would probably endorse a relatively loose definition of “blended family”: any family formed when an adult with one or more children takes up with a different adult, who may or may not have children. If you’re a purist, you might require that both adults have at least one child. In 1983, a writer defined it thus: “pop-psychology euphemism for members of two broken families living under the same roof, a mixture of step-parents, step-children and step-siblings.” Ten years before that, a psychology textbook defined it as a “family consisting of a husband and a wife, the children of either or both from a previous marriage, and children of the present marriage.” The new spouses had to have kids together, not just with former partners. The extra distinctions may have been made possible by a wider panoply of related terms than we can remember now. A surprisingly large amount of vocabulary sprang up around such filial configurations; in 1980, the New York Times propounded the following list: “conjugal continuation, second-marriage family, stepfamily, blended family, reconstituted family and metafamily.” (It missed “merged family,” also in use by 1980. “Mixed family” means that the parents are of different race, ethnicity, or religion.) Of these, only “stepfamily” would be familiar to most people in 2017, but Wikipedia distinguishes between stepfamilies (only one adult has a pre-existing kid) and blended families (both adults). According to the OED, “stepfamily” goes back to the 19th century; the earliest citation I found for “blended family” dated from 1964.

Why did “blended family” win out? Probably the usual mixture of euphony and accuracy, or intuitiveness. Most of us understood pretty quickly what it meant the first time we heard it in context, and it sounds good — not too long, not too short, scans nicely. “Second-marriage family” is clunky; “metafamily” is jargony and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. “Blended family” sounds a lot better than “reconstituted family” (just add water!), you have to admit. The only mystery: why didn’t “merged family” catch on?

We like to think that the quirks and foibles of our own generation are unprecedented, but blended families are hardly new. My father’s father grew up in one after his mother divorced his father and married her second husband. My mother’s mother was the daughter of a second marriage, an old widower and a young wife. Life expectancy was lower then, so remarriages were more often occasioned by death than divorce. Was there a decline in the number of blended families for a generation or two, long enough to forget how common such arrangements used to be? If so, the phenomenon has come roaring back. Somehow, before 1970 or so, we got along without a general term for it. Now we’ll never get rid of this one.

There may have been earlier examples on television, but “The Brady Bunch” was the first show to feature a blended family week after week, thus perhaps making the whole idea seem more wholesome. It is doubtful that the sitcom had much effect in its time, given its poor ratings and reviews, but pop-culture observers agree that it had a long and powerful afterlife among those of a certain age (mine), for whom the Brady Bunch is part of a comforting nostalgic penumbra (accent on “numb”). Several shows about different varieties of blended family have succeeded Mike and Carol and Sam* and Alice: Full House, Step by Step, Modern Family. The Bradys anticipated a trend; their descendants follow along behind, trying to catch up to everyday life. The Stepfamily Foundation started life in 1977; support groups and talks at the local library aimed at blended families seem to have arisen in the eighties, when the requisite self-help books also began to appear. New terms must surely arise to reflect new conditions, but the rule is that only one or two out of a larger number will make it to the next generation and a shot at immortality.

* The butcher. Remember?

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comfort food

(1980’s | journalese (gastronomy) | “home cooking,” “favorite dish”)

You could construct a good personality test by asking subjects to define this expression and list examples. Food writers use it confidently, but it has a wide range of meaning, though the gradations can be pretty subtle. The bottom lines that seem to underlie every use of the phrase: it has to be something the diner is already familiar with, and likes. Beyond that, it can go in several directions with equal confidence. Obviously, there is some overlap among the categories below, but I find the taxonomy helpful:

-What you ate when you were a small child, therefore often mushy or liquid, that makes you feel like you’re in Mama’s arms again. In other words, comforting food. Things like macaroni and cheese or tomato soup.

-What lovely Liz from Queens calls “white food.” Also often mushy and associated with childhood, but the point is it’s uncomplicated — bland and starchy as well as pale in color. Mashed potatoes, bananas, vanilla ice cream.

-What people eat in the country. “Comfort food” is sometimes used as a synonym for down-home dishes, and it may have a strong regional tinge. Comfort foods in the South may differ from comfort foods in the Northwest, for example (Moon Pies are not big in Seattle). Burritos in the Southwest, lobster rolls in the Northeast.

-Anything plain and unsurprising. Sometimes “comfort food” refers to things that are simple to prepare as well as eat, perhaps with the implication that it’s for family consumption rather than guests. This covers the first two above and other areas as well. Oatmeal, spaghetti, scrambled eggs.

-Heavy or at least substantial preparations; usually meat, frying, or both are involved. Meat loaf, casseroles, pot roast, burger and fries. Don’t be alarmed if the word “rib-sticking” appears nearby.

-Whatever you happen to enjoy, whatever makes you feel better for having eaten it, or makes up for a bad day. This sense of the term really opens the floodgates; now fancy gourmet concoctions can sit right beside the humblest fare. Sushi or catfish, crème brulée or egg custard, sweetbreads or scrapple. Such broad usage may be an abuse of the term, but you hear it a fair amount.

Notable by its absence from the lists above is the noble vegetable. The more effort it requires to eat, and the less obviously sweet, salty, or fatty it is, the less likely it will qualify as comfort food (except under the last definition, where anything goes).

There are some obvious faults — in the geological sense — in the meaning of “comfort food” that help explain the multiplicity sketched above. The main one: both personal preference and social custom are part of the field covered by this expression, and neither can be disregarded. Each person has their own, to some degree, but there is usually a fairly strong consensus on what most people in the same culture would consider comfort food. If your version of it is a rice cake with a shmear of tofu, that’s your business, but don’t expect your peers to share your tastes. Another fault: Lovers of exotic cuisine may depict “comfort food” with a sneer as unworthy of an adventurous palate, but more often it operates with reverse snobbery, as the lower classes contrast their chow lovingly with the pretentious, fussy gourmet variety. I also note in passing that “comfort food” partakes of nostalgia, real or imagined, especially when it summons our childhood diet or rural eating habits. But once again, the nostalgia may be deeply personal (childhood) or sociocultural (down home). Another point of negative interest: the expression is rarely used metaphorically (e.g., calling a novel “literary comfort food” as a reviewer in the New York Times did in 1987). We have chicken soup for the soul, but comfort food fills only the belly. To round off this sequence of unrelated points, I will suggest that there is no direct connection between the rises of “comfort zone” and “comfort food,” but they occurred at the same time, and it’s quite possible the two expressions helped each other into everyday language.

My brilliant, beautiful girlfriend gave me this expression months ago, and I finally decided to take a bite out of it. Thanks, baby!

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(1990’s | journalese (arts))

It may surprise you to learn that there are some who don’t like hipsters. The concept seems too familiar to require summary, but I encourage everyone to spend an hour Googling “hipster definition” or something similar. Once you see through the fog of animus, you encounter amazingly precise definitions of the term, with detailed and occasionally exquisite catalogues of preferences in fashion, the arts, diet, transportation, grooming, and who knows what all else. Oh, and then there’s the attitude, thoroughly annoying to upstanding citizens everywhere. Pretentious. Hypocritical. Self-righteous. Suckers for fads. Even card-carrying hipsters deny membership in the group; that too is an oft-cited trait of hipsterism, one of the odder ones, it seems to me. There must be some hipster out there who will own up, for Pete’s sake. Diogenes, get busy and start searching for an honest hipster. (In our day, that would be a reality show, and it probably wouldn’t last a season.)

Now “hipster” goes back at least to the 1940’s, when it was a straightforward variation on “hip” or “hip (hep) cat.” Back then, “hipster” was a compliment, used mostly within a particular, and fairly small, subculture. The word was applied to devotees of the latest jazz, or more generally the language, habits, and attitude that went with it. By the mid-1950’s, it was a synonym for “beatnik”; Norman Mailer used it to talk about white people who wanted to be black (which was thought to be the same as being hip). The emphasis fell on expert knowledge and awareness of your cultural surroundings, but anyone considered to be in the know or up to date rated the term. And with that went “cool” and other affectations: avoidance of strong emotion or expression, lack of interest in the world outside the club, etc. Does any of that sound familiar? The connoisseurship, the detachment, the lassitude, the obsessions? “Hipster” was overtaken by “hippie” in the 1960’s, which drove every other derivative of “hip” out of the language for twenty years. (It lives on today as an insult, which is what it was in the first place. “Hippie” is another example of a derogatory term adopted and embraced by its target.) When “hipster” jostled its way back into common speech, it brought quite a bit of its former meaning with it.

At least up until the mid-1980’s, one encountered “hipster” generally in articles about jazz musicians of a previous generation. It’s not clear to me when the changeover happened, but as early as the late 1980’s, I found some citations that made me suspect that today’s meaning was in play by then. But nothing really unambiguous until the early 1990’s. By 1995 the word was used as we use it now, though not universally. It went along with the rise of luxury coffee and Quentin Tarantino. And in those halcyon days the word often had a nostalgic tinge, a sense of rediscovering a hipper past. That shading seems to be gone. Another change: “Hipster” now almost always carries opprobrium, which was not true when it was an in-group term sixty, or even thirty, years ago. Is it just because hipsters are more obnoxious than they were back then? Maybe they’re just more ubiquitous; so much ink has been spilled over the phenomenon that everyone got tired of it (including the hipsters themselves), and ennui became the only possible response. Urban Dictionary affords over 500 definitions, and the web abounds with takedowns of hipsterism. One clever deconstruction from Adbusters (2008) suffers only slightly from the rather feverish suggestion that the hipsters will be the ones to bring down Western civilization once and for all.

One thing generally associated with hipsters all along is youth, or at least the ability to fake it. When do you cross the boundary and get too old to be a hipster? You wake up one morning and the wrinkles are just a little too deep. OMG! We have to move to the suburbs! Briefcases and bow ties for everyone! You probably have to stop wearing tight jeans and cycling when you turn into a hipster emeritus, but let us hope the poor dears can hang onto their obscure bands and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The sense of superiority will be the last thing to go.

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(early 1990’s | fashionese | “old-time(y),” “harking back”)

Back to the past! To hell with the future! From these revolutionary sentiments sprang our word “retro,” first used in bulk at the end of the 1970’s to talk about the latest fashions from Paris. Not too many of our new expressions are imported from France, but this one was (“la mode rétro”), so eaters of freedom fries use at your own risk. An early citation from New York Magazine (December 13, 1978) defined it as “the concept of borrowing things from the past, of looking backward for inspiration.” The word was capitalized and placed in quotation marks, presented as decidedly new. And it’s defined as a noun, perhaps even a specific school of fashion. (Cf. this from UPI, January 25, 1982: “the Nina Ricci salon opened the Paris high fashion spring-summer collections by reviving Paris’ favorite ‘retro,’ the 1940s look.”) Before that, “retro” was mainly a prefix, although it had a few specialized uses as an independent word. It was probably most familiar to most of us in words like “retro-rocket,” which has a pleasantly musty 1950’s science fiction sound (a tense voice says, “Activate the retro-rockets now!” just before the music swells). Occasionally it served as an abbreviation for “retroactive,” probably the most common word that began with “retro.”

It seems to have been used almost exclusively in the fashion world for a few years before it began to creep into discourse on other arts and leisures. The nominal usage fell by the wayside pretty quickly as the word edged into everyday use later in the 1980’s. By 1989, there it is in Car and Driver: “Suddenly, retro cars are hot. ‘Retro’ meaning cars that trigger nostalgic feelings . . .” We can all agree that a fashionista term has arrived when it turns up in one of the great automotive magazines. I’d say “retro” was comfortably ensconced in our vocabulary by the mid-1990’s.

It isn’t altogether clear to me what shades of meaning “retro” has. Must nostalgia be involved? How far back does a style (or anything else) have to go to qualify as retro? “Vintage” obviously is a related word; according to my hasty investigations, “vintage” when applied to clothes or cars came into use not long before “retro.” Another word that lies close but means something a little different is “period,” as in “period piece” or “period furniture.” But “retro” is at the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from another new expression: “That’s so five minutes ago!” Maybe “retro” by now has pretty much lost its little ways and degenerated into “old-fashioned.” (That definition strikes my ear as too broad and vague, but maybe I’m just retro.)

Not everything can be retro — some things just don’t lend themselves to throwbacks. You don’t hear much about “retro software” or “retro laptops.” (Though I should point out that one of the WordPress “themes” is called Retro MacOS, designed to make the blog look like an old Mac screen.) Some day, the iPad will be retro, but will there ever be a retro iPad? It seems impossible, because computer equipment that isn’t up to date or better can’t be sold in any quantity. But in a hundred years, who knows? Maybe our demi-robot descendants will be comforted by the reassuringly antiquated touch screen.

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