Earlier this autumn, I lured some of you into responding to an informal poll I’d created to probe whether there might be a relationship between a person’s age and the likelihood he or she will embrace a neologism. More than 200 people took part, and I’ve long been promising to chart the data and look for trends. It’s finally done — with enormous help from Catriona Bruce, a master’s student here at the Technical University of Munich.
I had asked participants to give their birth years and opinions (as binary responses) about seven phrases, which I chose because each contained novel language that sprang from a distinct and recent decade. The idea was that if most people born in the 1970s accepted a neologism from the 1990s but rejected one from the 2000s, we might be able to argue that our appetite for new language dwindles in our 20s.
The phrases were:
“I slept through the reveal.” (reveal as a noun - 1950s)
“Could you please xerox this?” (brand name Xerox as a verb - 1960s)
“The results will impact our decision.” (impact as a verb - 1970s)
“I’m trying to develop my skillset.” (compound noun skillset - 1980s)
“My omelet morphed into a scramble.” (morph as a verb outside the context of computer animation - 1990s)
“Did he medal?” (medal as a verb - 2000s)
“I’m lowkey annoyed by her response” (lowkey/low-key as an adverb -2010s)
Our first chart looks at who responded. One commenter on the original post pointed out that this is a self-selected group within a self-selected group, and hardly representative of the population at large. Point taken. I should also note that either because of human error or malicious attack (I blame Russian bots), the spreadsheet got screwed up at some point, with many people’s responses altered by a third party. I corrected these changes manually, using saved copies of earlier versions of the spreadsheet. Also, though the spreadsheet remains open, we only worked with responses entered before September 21. At that time, 256 people had responded.
All that said, here you go.
Though we lacked responses from anyone born after the year 2000, millennials were relatively well represented, as well as Generation X and Baby Boomers.
Looking at the data, evidence supporting my hypothesis — that with age we become less tolerant of novel language — is weak: Only in the case of our 2010s phrase, lowkey as an adverb, was there a direct relationship between a person’s age at the time the usage became relatively widespread and intolerance for the phrase. Medal as a verb roughly followed this pattern as well, though people born in the 1980s were more likely to find it off-putting than respondents 10 or 20 years older. Reactions to the other phrases follow no age-related pattern.
This might be easier to see when we cluster by phrases:
If the data doesn’t support my hypothesis (and I have to say, I’m glad it doesn’t), the notes many respondents added to their entries were still fun to read.
There were technology- and age-related surprises: “I get the feeling I’ve heard someone use Xerox like that but it’s fallen so out of use I had to look up the meaning,” wrote someone born in 1992. Someone else complained about people using Google as a verb when looking up information on other search engines … whereas I didn’t think Bing got enough use that this would even be an issue.
There were repeated complaints about corporate guff: synergies, silos, deliverables.
There was self-reflection: One person had no problem with any of the phrases, adding, “But then, I’m pretty chill. (And, clever.)” Someone else agreed about the phrases but said, “And I’m very high strung.”
And there was concern about a word that wasn’t supposed to be under judgment. “I’m more bothered by ‘scramble’ than by ‘morphed’,” said one respondent. Another asked, “Who calls ‘scrambled eggs’ by a countable noun “scramble”?
Fair enough — a new example, then: My dream of a highly scientific, statistically sound experiment morphed into something looser.” But I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.