I’ve been doing a lot of peripheral research for the screenplay I’m working on, background of all kinds as I try to get inside the heads of the people who are speaking. They each have to sound different, of course, but they also must sound as if they are living in the era they are set in – the 1940s. Among other things, I found a list of 1940s slang. That was interesting because some of the expressions are still in currency today. Others are so weird I can’t use them. And then when I fid something useful, it has to be fitted to the character. They don’t all speak the same.
Neither do we. Not only do we have a wardrobe of words that we prefer to wear but we also change it over the years. We do this both suddenly and slowly. A new word pops up, absolutely necessary and applicable to what we are thinking about and it’s ours, instantly, like blog, for example. The word, adapted from “weblog”, came into use in the late 1990s. What would we do without it today?
Other words fall into disuse as the objects they refer to disappear. Icebox ceased to be in use when a refrigerator became a common household appliance. My mother, however, kept on calling it icebox. Lots of people did, especially when they still had one in a summer cottage.
Ersatz is one of the words I have to use in my film which is set in wartime Berlin. It was the German word for substitute or fake coffee. My mother called instant coffee ersatz for the rest of her life.
Oleo is still found in crossword puzzles. It’s short for oleomargarine, the full name ofthe substitute for butter. I don’t think it is ever used in everyday speech.
I use a lot of words today that didn’t exist, or if they did, were not common as few as ten years ago. It’s true, many of them are technical terms for things that didn’t exist, but other words have been adapted and put to use in different contexts. I
Take icon, but don’t put it in a church. An icon, in my first understanding of the word, was a Russian religious artifact. Now it’s a symbol, a representative of some awesome skill or talent, and the adjective is popular: “an iconic cake?” Awesome - also very popular.
People who make an effort to appear younger than they are by wearing fashionable clothes and make-up, often give themselves away with their language that is one or even two decades out of style.
That’s why I was researching the slang of the 40s, so that my characters could be true to their age. . I googled it, of course. Google is another word dating from the 90s, a verb now, deriving from the name of the search engine bearing the name.