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Words beyond their expiration dates
On dialing and hanging up, France's weird policy on English loaner words, and just how long we'll hit the gas
The English language has a refreshing way of changing over time, reflecting not only the evolution of how individual words are used, but also the metaphorical and idiomatic changes that follow along with the needs of speakers and writers. By contrast, France has an official policy to forbid loan words migrating in from English. In choosing stasis, the French may well be paradoxically cementing the Anglophone world's claim to the world's lingua franca.
■ Technological change is placing pressure on old phrases probably like never before. We still "dial" numbers on our smartphones, "hang up" at the end of a call, "tape" television programs on our DVRs, "rewind" clips on YouTube, and hit the "gas" in our electric cars. But for how long will each of those phrases remain viable?
■ Some will survive out of sheer economy: There's no shorter word for choosing digits than "dial", even though virtually no one still has a rotary-dial phone. And "gas" doesn't just beat "accelerator" by four syllables, it's also so deeply enshrined in cultural memory that it likely won't be erased.
■ That durability is no particular surprise, either: We still "chug along" (even though no one is riding behind a steam engine) and "reap" what we sow (sickles and scythes conspicuous by their absence). Simple, pithy turns of phrase have a way of sticking around.
■ But it can't hurt to occasionally ponder the odds for the words we use, and to stress-test the language to see what might be destined for the "ash heap" of history (even after the obsolescence coal-fired ovens in the kitchen).
■ Language really does have an impact on thought: In particular, on how we frame our observations and what things we observe and distinguish around us. Surely there are better expansions on the word "snow" than the stultifying euphemism "white stuff".
■ A language in which beloved phrases can outlive their strict technical applicability, and depleted ones can be unapologetically tossed aside in favor of better ones, is a good one. Sometimes phrases can come full-circle -- like "motion picture", which may be antiquated but is a safer description than "film" in a world where 35 mm has been displaced by digital files. Whether analog or digital, bite-sized or long-form, they're all motion pictures.
■ But a language needs the freedom to adapt -- or to cling -- however its users want. Without frequent incursions by the new and flexibility with the old, even a language that once ruled much of the world may find itself dead. Vive le Franglais, and long live the technically obsolete bon mot!