Anybody out there remember The Hustle, a disco-era dance craze? A half-century later, when we say hustle, we mean a job, and it’s preceded by “side.” This is, after all, the gig economy. Even ancients like me have a side hustle, as a ghostwriter.
“Ghost” is another word that has been repurposed for modern usage. Now it means being ignored when someone you know suddenly stops acknowledging your existence. If a ghostwriter “ghosted” his author client, the ghost really would disappear, and be out of a side hustle.
When I recently was asked what obsesses me, it took me no time to reply, “Words.” Like the iron of a blacksmith, they are the raw material I work with to earn a living as a wordsmith.
Have you heard, for example, the word cheugy? That is a snickering term favored by Gen Zers to let their elders – that is, Millennials – know when they are trying too hard to be trendy.
“Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…” Anybody out there don’t remember the lyrics from ”A Day in the Life,” the climactic cut on The Beatles’ landmark Sgt. Pepper album?
Central to my smithing and obsessing over words is wondering how as innocuous and economical and serviceable a word as “woke” got appropriated and politicized and disfigured to the point I hesitate to use it in idle conversation.
Depending whom you’re addressing, simply saying “You know, I when I woke up today…” could ignite a knock-down, drag-out argument – about race and education and voting and guns and gender – that veers so verbally violently from left to right and back again, both combatants end up with whiplash. And on the way to the hospital, they can turn to health care to continue their smash mouthing.
Invoking the pejorative form of “woke” has become hit-and-run shorthand for “I disagree with you, but I don’t have the bandwidth or debating chops to get too granular about it by having a mature conversation to discuss our differences, so I’ll just call you this debased four-letter word that literally means you are not unconscious, so take heart — it really is less an insult than a compliment that you are aware of what’s going on.”
We’ve come to brandish words like swords, using them to bludgeon each other, instead of like plowshares, to cultivate nourishment through mutual respect and understanding. We’re not word smithing. We’re word smiting. The politically correct would call it silly. The politically incorrect would call it stupid. Gen Z would call it cheugy, as in “time to wake up and smell the roses, not needle each other to death with a thousand thorns.”
Why do we do such unhelpful things that get us nowhere? The Doors’ Jim Morrison got it right. People are strange.