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  • From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations by Allan Metcalf
  • David K. Barnhart (bio)
From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations by Allan Metcalf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 209. $19.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-026312-8

This book is the latest by Allan Metcalf on the place of words in the English language. The first was America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America. That book sought to progress year by year, identifying each year with a term that arose or in some cases blossomed then. In 1999, Metcalf published The World in So Many Words. From Iceland came geyser; from Norway, berserk; and from what is now the Czech Republic, robot, etc.—demonstrating the sponge-like readiness of English to absorb from where ever whatever it needs. Metcalf has also written about the history of a single word in OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. His wide-ranging interest in English in America is underscored by Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush.

From Skedaddle to Selfie groups together the linguistic terms that characterize each of thirteen generations from the Republican Generation (those born between 1742 and 1766) up to the Homeland Generation (those born beginning in 2005). These generations provide the organizational structure for a discussion of more than 120 words, including unalienable, gerrymander, pioneer, O.K., deadline, dude, hot dog, jazz, swell, babysitter, e, teenybopper, awesome, nerd, whatever, LOL, and homeland.

For the matrix of generations, Metcalf has relied upon William Strauss and Neil Howe’s treatment of generations in their books Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 and The Fourth Turning. Strauss and Howe (1991, 20) identify a generation as “a phase of life defined in terms of central social roles”; they name eighteen such generations. Of those, Metcalf focuses on a selection of thirteen, and notes on the concept of a generation:

Generations generate interest these days. The deepest divisions in our society, it is argued, are not matters of gender or race or religion or region, but of membership in different generations, a matter of destiny depending simply on when each of us was born.

(xi) [End Page 208]

The generations he has selected from Strauss and Howe are:

  • The Republican Generation, 1742–1766 (24 years)

  • The Compromise Generation, 1767–1791 (24 years)

  • The Transcendental Generation, 1792–1821 (29 years)

  • The Gilded Generation, 1822–1842 (20 years)

  • The Progressive Generation, 1843–1859 (16 years)

  • The Missionary Generation, 1860–1882 (22 years)

  • The Lost Generation, 1883–1900 (17 years)

  • The G.I. Generation, 1901–1924 (23 years)

  • The Silent Generation, 1925–1942 (17 years)

  • The Boom Generation, 1943–1960 (17 years)

  • The Thirteenth Generation, 1961–1981 (20 years)

  • The Millennial Generation, 1982–2004 (22 years)

  • The Homeland Generation, 2005–present (11 years)

The number of vocabulary terms that Metcalf includes from each generation varies. From the “unfinished generation” of today, which began in 2005 (i.e., the Homeland Generation), there are only two words in eleven years. The Millennial Generation, in contrast, boasts 26 terms, including selfie, from the title.

To understand the evolution of English, it is important not to confuse the date of first recorded use (as evidenced, e.g., in the Oxford English Dictionary) and the date of appearance of the members of a generation which adopted or popularized the term. For instance, unalienable, first recorded in the OED with evidence dating from 1611, was popularized in the British colonies in North America with its adoption by the Republican Generation’s Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence some 165 years later. Metcalf points out that the alternative form, inalienable (OED: 1646), prevailed in popularity only following the death of Jefferson in 1826—well into the Gilded Generation.

From that Gilded Generation, named for the gold fever of the 1840s, we find evidence of the term skedaddle, the other word from the title of Metcalf’s book. Skedaddle (OED: 1861) arose apparently just as the members of the Gilded Generation went to war and the older members [End Page 209] of the next generation—the Progressive Generation (1843–1859)—were...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 208-212
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-11
Open Access
No
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