Vocabulary Out Of Vogue

Brad Leithauser ponders how “words become unusable for all sorts of reasons”:

Though “niggard” and “niggardly” have a rich pedigree running through Chaucer and Shakespeare and Browning, they’ve recently fallen out of currency as the result of being near-homonyms to a hateful epithet. On the other hand, a cluster of earthy terms that used to be unusable, at least in civil discourse, has gained acceptability, especially among the young. Not long ago, teaching a course in the novella to undergrads, I was apparently the only one in the classroom who felt there was anything odd or untoward when a shy, soft-spoken sophomore raised her hand to offer this assessment of Edith Wharton’s put-upon and pitiable hero Ethan Frome: “I think Ethan’s a total asshole.” Though the seventies, when I was in college, are recalled as a freewheeling and iconoclastic era, back then “asshole” wouldn’t have been deemed an acceptable lit-crit characterization. …

Words also can become unusable, paradoxically, through excessive usefulness—overuse. “Awesome” strikes me as an all but unusable word, except in irony, now that we live in a world in which you might plausibly hear an oatmeal cookie or a shoelace described as awesome. (“Awful,” né awe-full, went in an analogous direction but died in a different way.) Likewise, “amazing” and “totally.”