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Rediscovered language for Millennial times

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes

For the last 30 years, we have been living through a period of extreme language expansion. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added 180,000 new words between 1990 and 1999 alone, representing a 25% growth in English vocabulary over the century – the most vigorous expansions since the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The 90s and 2000s, in particular, were decades characterized by dramatic word creation in response to the needs of the new internet age: “blog,” “Google,” “mashup,” “cyberstalking,” “staycation,” and “upcycle,” to name but a few.

Though language continues to be coined to keep up with new products, trends, and behaviors (“Ubering” springs instantly to mind), a different trend is emerging among Millennials and Gen Z. Word rediscovery.

In the search for authenticity – a Millennial buzzword if ever there was one – people are looking back to history to imbue meaning, a sense of rooted-ness and rightness, in a manner not dissimilar to the 17th century Pastoralists, or the Romantics at the end of the 18th century. And language is following suite.

Millennials are consummate connectors, communicators. From blogs, to instagram posts to texts they enjoy image-based communications and writing, and have a general aversion to using their telephones for telephoning. As the youngest member of our office put it, “Talking on the phone is the absolute worst.” Thus the twin quests: a search for the “authentic” and a greater need for linguistic variation and nuance in service of all this prolific and enthusiastic expression, combine. Words that would have been at home in the mouth of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and not often since, are roaring back in fashion; “He’s so dapper!” our Millennial colleagues say. “That dress is scandalous! Her aesthetic is so interesting.

Illustration 1. Tracking use of word popularity over time

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Chronicle Database, The New York Times

The trend is knowing, and somewhat self-consciousness. If you’re a Buzzfeed reader you will have seen countless listicles (added to the OED in 2014) along the lines of “15 old-timey words we should bring back immediately!” Though wishing won’t help bring back “Balderdash” any time soon, and only the most ironic of hipsters would speak of “Skullduggery” with a straight face, even here, at the most extreme representation of the trend, the enthusiasm for language that harks back to an older time is striking. You don’t have to venture far into Whole Foods to forage for artisanal, sustainable, organic, small-batch, stone-ground, wood-fired bread.

Illustration 2. Tracking use of word popularity over time

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Chronicle Database, The New York Times

Being aware of this language use, and deploying it mindfully can be an asset to a brand, especially one that embraces that other great Millennial and Gen X passion- technology. Language can help a brand find the nexus where the cutting edge and modern can also be rooted and authentic. If used mindfully and deliberately (without wading into Hipster parody), it can bring richness and uniqueness to communications. A conundrum to ponder upon indeed.

Contributors

Senior Verbal Identity Consultant