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Updated: July 2, 2014 00:49 IST
World View

The ‘recency illusion’

David Shariatmadari
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David Shariatmadari
David Shariatmadari

The ‘recency illusion’ makes us believe words and phrases we’ve just noticed are new. But it isn’t always the case

Sometimes it feels like we must be the snarkiest, slangiest, least-formal generation in human history. What other age could have coined the word chugger, invented ROFL and its many permutations, or seen vocal fry ripple out from Kim Kardashian in an unstoppable wave?

This idea fits snugly next to that familiar prejudice about language: that it’s gradually deteriorating. And it is part of a broader cognitive bias that leads us to extrapolate from our own experience in order to make theories about the world. The linguist Arnold Zwicky has labelled it the “recency illusion” — “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent” (my italics).

Thankfully, there’s a big chunk of actual data on the history of English to check our assumptions against: it’s called literature. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the way people spoke, but it sheds light on the lexicon of the literate classes. The lack of a word doesn’t tell us it was never used, but the occurrence of one strongly suggests it was. In any case, hidden amongst the mass of written records of English are some real surprises. (Some of the examples that follow are taken from this Metafilter thread.)

High

As in intoxicated by drugs. It must be from the 1960s — the era of psychedelia, right? In fact, being “high — under the influence of a narcotic” appears in an edition of the Baltimore Evening Sun from 1932. And when we confine ourselves to booze, we find the usage goes back much further. In 1627 Thomas May wrote “He’s high with wine”.

Booze

Speaking of which, booze meant “potable liquid” at least as far back as the 1730s, as in the phrase “peck and booz” for meat and drink. In terms of alcohol, the earliest reference found by lexicographers working on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is Hotten's 1859 compendium of slang. And a Daily Telegraph court report from 1895 goes as follows: “Mr Willis: ‘She heard some men shout that they wanted some more booze.’ Mr Justice Wright: ‘What?’ Mr Willis: ‘Booze my lord, drink.’ Mr Justice Wright: ‘Ah!'”

Not!

Stick this at the end of a statement to negate everything that went before it. “I’m really looking forward to spending time with my great aunt Iris. Not!” Ask anyone who was a teenager during the 1990s how this caught on and they'll probably refer you to the film Wayne’s World. But in the 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss there’s a very similar construction. “She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did — not.” The OED records several further instances.

Hang out

The verb hang out, meaning to spend time or live, is attested in this 1811 “dictionary of Buckish Slang.” “The traps scavey where we hang out” means “The officers know where we live”. In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, from 1836, a character asks: “I say old boy, where do you hang out?”

Crib

The use of this word to denote a dwelling place — linked in many people’s minds with African-American slang, particularly hip-hop subculture — has a long pedigree. The OED describes it as meaning “a small habitation, cabin, hovel; a narrow room.” In this last sense, Shakespeare has King Henry IV ask “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee ... Than in the perfumed chambers of the great?”

Babe

The OED has found babe — as in sexually attractive female — back in 1915. The American Dialect Society’s journal of that year records the phrase “She’s some babe.”

Doable

To me, at least, this sounds like office speak. “Is this doable before close of play today?” an email might demand. But it's a surprisingly ancient coinage. Bishop Reginald Pecock writes in 1449 of “a lawe ... which is doable and not oonli knoweable.” Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary translates faisable as “doeable, effectable”.

Legit

The abbreviation of legitimate has a modern ring to it. Ex-cons in TV crime dramas struggle to go “legit” after they’ve served their time. But precisely this use is attested as far back as 1897, in the U.S. National Police Gazette: “Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit’,” it tells us.

Sexed-up

The use of this phrase, which has a very recent flavour because of the saga of the September dossier, published in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, has plenty of precedents in printed material more than 70 years old.

OMG

OK, it’s not a word, exactly. But a joke in a letter to Winston Churchill may well have given the world its first taste of OMG — an exclamation so ubiquitous on the internet, and now even in speech, that it must be about to fall out of fashion. Given its practical, space-saving nature, who’s to say there aren’t thousands more private instances of early OMG out there?

Unfriend

This may be cheating. Unfriend, as used by Thomas Fuller in 1659 (He wrote: “I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us”) clearly does not refer to the act of removing someone from one’s list of Facebook acquaintances. It does, however, mean the severing of a friendship — so maps quite closely onto Mark Zuckerberg’s word. It’s hardly a coincidence that they both chose the same construction, given the flexibility of the “un-” prefix. Just goes to show, there’s nothing new under the sun.

So why do we always fall for the idea that there is — and why does the recency illusion (a form of inductive reasoning) hold such sway, in language as elsewhere in life? This is probably down to the fact that it was very useful, from an evolutionary point of view, to be able to construct models of the world based on our individual experience of it. For example, not hunting on the side of the mountain where you were once bitten by a hyena could save your life. But what if the hyena attack was a freak occurrence, and the odds of it happening again extremely small? Personal encounters aren’t always the best guide.

Now we have data, historical accounts, advice from the past and from our peers. We don’t need to rely on gut feeling to tell us whether something’s true about the world. When we do so, we’re often wrong.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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