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Archaic words still define our language Tom Mooney Remember When


February 17. 2013 12:50AM
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The English language, scholars say, acquired its one-millionth word earlier this year, stretching its lead over the world's second-biggest language (and I don't remember what that is) by about 500,000 words.


So wouldn't you think there'd be a right-on-the-money word for just about everything our Anglo-American populace would want to describe?


Sadly, there isn't. Or, at least I haven't come across a term to cover this phenomenon: a commonly used word or expression that's based on an action or product that fewer and fewer living people know anything about. But we go on using the antique word anyway.


OK, since that doesn't explain much, let's get right to my Top 10 Words That Have Stood the Test of Time – though perhaps not the test of logic.


One: A cheery "going up" you speak as you begin a climb of some kind. Years ago, operating an elevator was serious business. So stores and public buildings employed uniformed men to drive the elevators from floor to floor. So you didn't step into the wrong elevator, the attendant would call "going up" or "going down" as you'd enter his domain.


Two: "Broken record," as in "The senator's endless warnings sounded like a broken record." In the days when music was played on grooved discs via a needle, a slight hitch in the groove would cause the stylus to jump and repeat the same snatch of melody over and over.


Three: "Dial," as in "Tune to 79.1 on your dial for the best in music" (even though your radio has a digital display and a remote). You also hear "Dial 555-1212 for customer service," probably because "punch in" has never made it. A limited percentage telephone-based computer access is still called "dial-up."


Four: "Fire sale," as in "The cash-strapped team held a fire sale of its overpaid stars." A century or so ago a store that had been burned out would put its remaining goods on "fire sale" at low prices to clear them out and rebuild. Health authorities would frown on such a practice today.


Five: "Through the wringer," as in "Angered by the loss, the coach put his team through the wringer at practice." Before fully automatic washers and dryers were invented, you'd wring out clothes that had just been washed by running them between two rollers via a crank. Then you'd hang them on a clothesline to dry.


Six: "Bargain basement," as in "That store has bargain-basement prices." Big department stores of the past were multi-story, and the basement would be reserved for special lower-priced lines of goods.


Seven: OK, this isn't a word, but a gesture. Let's say you want your buddy, who's just gotten into his car, to lower the window so you can tell him his tailpipe's dragging. You make a motion with your hand as if turning a crank to roll down the window of a 1950 Hudson. The gesture doesn't make sense today, but we do it all the time.


Eight: "Cream," meaning something at the very top quality-wise. A glass bottle of homogenized milk had a couple of inches of delicious cream at the top, which you could skim off to use for baking.


Nine: "Dog days," or hot and unpleasant times. Back when people watched the skies they found Sirius, the "dog star," high in the sky during the humid, sultry time of the year.


Ah, yes, you muse. You've noticed that's just nine items. But they give me only so many lines on this page.


Is there a word for that?



Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at tmooney2@ptd.net.




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