American Speech 20.1 (2002) 100-112
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Among the New Words
Wayne Glowka and Megan Melançon
Georgia College & State University
IN THE SELF-ABSORBED MONTHS before 11 September 2001—the day hijacked commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and left still untold numbers of dead—we began working on terms related to the interests of aging baby boomers. What emerged from that work was a collection of terms that had something to do with the boomer generation, their children, their parents, things that they might do or suffer, and the places where they might live and work. In the weeks following 11 September, the work seemed a little silly—indeed, almost quaint—in an America where armed National Guardsmen stood behind the concertina wire surrounding rural armories previously considered by most locals as places to vote, attend public auctions, or watch a small traveling circus. However, at a time when people elsewhere were discovering that they had received war-grade anthrax spores in their mail, it was comforting to do research on words whose now trivial implications had seemed so important just a few months before. Future installments will no doubt present words dealing with the new, more dangerous world in which we live, but for now we look fondly on words that seemed notable in the summer before the terrorists hit home.
As usual, we have found considerable humor in the terms we have culled. In the hyperbole of American real estate talk, a Valhalla is essentially a pleasant place for engineers and computer scientists to live. The term has come a long way from the time of Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth-century Icelandic writer who described the mythological Valhalla 'the hall of the slaughtered' as the home of the heroes chosen by Odin (The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1954). We might naively expect the home of divinely chosen heroes to be pleasant—and Snorri does say that the hall is shingled with golden shields—but the doorman juggles seven knives while checking the credentials of anyone who enters Valhalla's many rooms, where there are "a great number of people, some playing, others drinking, some had weapons and were fighting" (30). Fighting is indeed a good part of life in Valhalla: "Every day after [the heroes] have dressed, they put on their armour and go out into the courtyard and fight and lay one another low" (65). Reconciled, they then go to breakfast, which consists mainly of alcoholic beverages. The heroes follow the lead of Odin, the god in charge, who takes no sustenance but [End Page 100] wine and gives all of his food to his pet wolves (63). Finding enough for the multitudes of heroes to drink and eat is not a problem, however, because (1) mead flows in abundance from the teats of a goat nibbling at the leaves of a tree growing inside the building (64) and (2) the same hog is boiled every day for food and comes alive again every evening. It nonetheless takes some doing to serve the large numbers of men, and the numbers of men will get bigger, "yet they will seem too few when the wolf comes" (63)—the wolf and the other monsters that will devour the sun, the moon, and the Earth and its inhabitants. Given Snorri's description, Valhalla would seem more appropriate for life in a fraternity house than life in a suburb attractive to techno geeks. What a bizarre twist on the original meaning of the word!
Occasionally, we slip in off-topic definitions for terms that otherwise had something to do with people grouped by ages. But we did not succumb to the temptation to give extended attention to other meanings we found for zoomer 'person who sells fake crack and then flees' (Seattle Times, 4 Nov. 1994, B3 [Lexis-Nexis]); 'person who drives too fast' (Toronto Star, 25 Jan. 1989, A26); and 'variety of tomato' (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 June 1992, 3A [Lexis-Nexis]). Similarly, we do not give...