Downtown View:Gobsmacked by the English Language

By Karen Cord Taylor

“Gobsmacked” came to America at just the right time. We needed a word that called to mind being unexpectedly socked in the head with a fistful of some disgusting, muddy substance. It’s what most of us have experienced during the current Republican campaign for president.

Thanks, Britain, and Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish singer who introduced many of us to the term when she described how she felt when she earned fame and opportunity by becoming a winner in 2009 on the television show, “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Gobsmacked is a new term that fit perfectly into the language. Other words change their meaning, develop loaded messages or are used in other ways by other people just when you think you know exactly what a word means.

Not all words are as successful as “gobsmacked.” Take a new meaning of “lifestyle.” Before the Godfrey Hotel opened on Washington Street this winter people who write for newspapers received an invitation to the opening of this “lifestyle hotel.”  “Lifestyle” is trite, lacking the complexity that accompanies most people’s lives. A friend once said he and his fiancée were deciding what their lifestyle would be. That people decided on their style of life was a new concept. I had previously thought it was a given, depending on your likes, dislikes, career choice and choice of mate.

So what was a “lifestyle hotel”? It turns out the Boutique and Lifestyle Lodging Association knows. It co-opted the term for big hotel chains’ small, boutique-style hotels.

Other businesses have also adopted the term. At least one downtown retail shop has identified itself as a “lifestyle” place. What does it mean? Who knows? But it surely means to be trendy.

Shepherd’s pie is also peculiar these days. Check out the ingredients in the frozen pies in Whole Foods. Shepherds tend sheep. But the shepherd’s pies are made with beef. What are they thinking?

They aren’t thinking. They forgot what the name means. This happened with a community newspaper I read at some point. Their classified section had small advertisements listing services. But they were all jumbled—they weren’t classified. Duh.

The British supermarket chain Tesco has also forgotten the meaning of a word. It decided to redesign its croissants because the company’s handlers believed a straight shape makes it is easier to spread jam. Really? Then how can you call them croissants, which means crescent? The French sometimes make them straight, but the French ones are so good compared to everyone else’s, especially the American version, they can make them any shape, and it would be okay.

The most interesting new word meaning to watch is “heroic.” It is a term some boosters are promoting as a substitute for Brutalism, the architectural style of Boston City Hall. The term Brutalism comes, most people would say, from béton brut, a French term meaning raw concrete. Unfortunately for its aficionados, brute in English doesn’t exactly mean raw.

I worry that the verb “are” could be an endangered species. Listen to the wording people are using more frequently after “there.” I recently heard a television personality say, “There’s cockroaches in there.” But she isn’t the only one. The pattern shows up frequently. Are the speakers’ brains not processing that they are about to use a plural? Maybe the fossil fuels have finally attacked our speech centers along with our oceans.

Then there are street names. A couple of months ago, I asked Nick Martin, spokesman for the BRA, a question about New Sudbury Street. It extends from Cross Street at the edge of the North End to Cambridge Street and is part of the 1960s’ West End renewal.

Nick pointed out that the street is called Sudbury Street on Google Maps. I pushed back on that name. I asked several people who live near the street. They all said it was New Sudbury Street.

I walked over to look at the sign. Sudbury Street. Tracey Ganiatsos, long-time spokeswoman for the Boston Transportation Department, advised me that the Public Improvement Commission, which manages street names, identifies the street as Sudbury.

But the plot thickened. I chanced upon a page in the MBTA web site. New Sudbury Street. Then I received a press release about the first phase of the Government Center Garage project from the same Nick Martin—in which he wrote about “the 1,300 square feet of ground floor retail space on New Sudbury Street.” (Italics mine.)

So I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it. It works either way.

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