Joseph Conrad, a great novelist who learned English as an adult and developed a foreigner's nuanced appreciation of English words, was one of the first writers of the 20th century to notice that certain terms seem to leap from the shadows and suddenly dominate what we read and say. In Conrad's first successful novel, Chance, published in 1913, the narrator says a corrupt banker cheated gullible people of their money by playing endless variations on a favourite word of the period, "thrift."
At that point, the narrator explains, the word "thrift" was an idea out in the streets walking arm in arm with righteousness, the inseparable companion and backer of all national catchwords. "You know the power of words. We pass through periods dominated by this or that word -- it may be development, or it may be competition, or education, or purity, or efficiency or even sanctity. It is the word of the time."
What's striking about that speech is that most of the examples Conrad cited 96 years ago don't differ much from the commanding words of recent decades. True, we now seldom speak of "sanctity." And, at least in the West, "purity" is not often discussed as a personal spiritual goal. Instead we have a version of it buried within us under other names. The longest-lived humans in history, we nevertheless worry constantly about the purity of our food, water and air.
A few years ago "governance" became a key word, on the business pages but also elsewhere; nowadays, lacking freshness, it tends to be avoided. "Convergence" was powerful, a titan among words, but we rarely see it now, at least in the headlines.
"Diversity," which rose to the top of the verbal hit parade in the 1990s, continues to hold its position. In politics and education, if you don't have it (in the racial and sexual sense), then you're out of business. It has its limitations, however; few speak of political diversity as highly desirable.
A few years ago "transparency" became a favourite of politicians hoping to win power. The Stephen Harper Conservatives loved it till they formed the government. Now they don't want it mentioned. They decided, on second thought, that opacity is easier to live with.
The big word of 2007 was, for sure, "footprint." That was and is, as Conrad would say, the word of the time. It's an ordinary old word that has completed a long, tedious journey from everyday language to Word Heaven, where it's now in regular use by scientists, politicians, high-class journalists and all-around freelance moralists. Think how far it has risen in a few centuries. Back in the day (a phrase I heard increasingly in 2007), a footprint was nothing but the impression left by a foot. The word had a few moments of glory, such as its starring role in one of literature's most famous incidents, the moment when Daniel Defoe, in his 1729 novel, has Robinson Crusoe discover, after 15 years of living alone on a desert island, a stranger's footprint in the sand. Later there was that line of Longfellow's about "Footprints on the sands of time."
But, in general, the word led a humdrum existence until the 1960s, when it moved into the space age and was selected to describe proposed landing areas for spacecraft. Among architects, it's used regularly to designate the land covered by a building. In the 1970s, New Yorkers living near JFK airport began complaining about their wretched lives within the "sonic footprint" of high-speed aircraft. In the 1990s, "footprint" came to mean the area covered by transmissions from a broadcasting satellite.
Now it's part of the everyday world of recycling and ecology, tentatively accepted last June by the Oxford English Dictionary as "An environmental consequence of human activity in terms of pollution, damage to ecosystems and depletion of natural resources." Environmentalists have devised the term "global footprint" to specify the negative effect of planet-wide supply lines that bring carrots from South Africa, say, to Europe.
In the last year, "footprint" has been most effectively combined with "carbon." This gave us a righteous metaphor of great potency. Today, writers who work the phrase "carbon footprint" into a speech or article, if possible several times, establish themselves as highly ethical and up-to-date, even if what they say doesn't notably differ from what they said a few years ago with different words. "Carbon footprint" altered consciousness by announcing that each of us, every last human on earth, possesses a carbon footprint -- and, if so inclined, can brag about it or apologize for it. As Leon Wieseltier wrote in the New Republic, "A few years ago nobody knew about carbon, and now carbon is all anybody knows."
The phrase has the sound of science. So does "epicentre." That's now used routinely to mean "centre," which gets discarded because it's too plain. Recently Clive James, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, criticized someone for using the word "quintessentially." James suggested that "In the language of the higher journalism gone wrong, 'quintessentially' is the only way to say 'essentially,' just as 'implode' is the only way to say 'explode,' " though they are antonyms.
Some years ago it became illegal simply to set forth a new way of thinking about something. A regulation passed by the Global Word Control Board (imaginary, but no less effective for that) said that if you want to say "a pattern of thought" you must write "paradigm," ideally extending it to "paradigm shift."
Nearly everyone seems to think, against all evidence, that long words are the best words. The standard translation of Hillel's famous statement of Jewish morality is a short-words masterpiece: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" A similar masterpiece is the King James Bible's "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good." (My theory is that Ernest Hemingway's style began with those 20 words.)
Clear language is always and ever under attack. It is a city besieged by hostile armies of politicians, press agents, censors and illiterate writers. Its most dangerous enemy is the deadening power of fashion.