The Linguistic Woes of the 1994 Time Traveler

ProgressCan you imagine going back to the time of Shakespeare? Right now you’re probably shivering with terror as you imagine dealing with the thous and thees and hithers, not to mention wearing tights and having a pointed beard.

Have you ever thought about what it would be like for someone to visit 2014 from the past? I mean, besides the fact that they’d have to live in a world with Kanye West.

I am talking about linguistics.

Language constantly changes and as a language teacher I’ve come to understand that I don’t really teach English, but English as it is at this point in time. So if someone came here from Shakespeare’s time, he would probably be just as terrified of our English as we imagine we’d be of his.

But in the last 15 years our language has undergone a serious upheaval due to technology, the Internet, and social media. With our dictionary of new, daily-used jargon, the world would be a cacophony of confusion for a time traveler. And I’m not talking about someone from Shakespeare’s time, but someone from 1994. Consider the following.

Status Update

Most probably someone from 1994 would understand these words, but together? Could you imagine 1994 time traveler trying to deduce the current meanings of this phrase by the way we use them?

Man, he changes his status update five times a day!

So, he gets in three relationships and breaks up five times a day? His status going from single to involved. Or is he in the hospital? He’s stable, in the ICU, in critical condition?


When I was in college, I had two friends who used to replace the word marijuana with pizza. So their conversations would revolve around pizza: when is the pizza coming? How much is the pizza? I hope you ordered enough pizza, because we don’t want to run out of pizza. It took me about three months to figure out what the hell was going on (I didn’t want to admit to not being in the know and let’s just say that I would never, em, be sent to spy school).

I have spent the day eavesdropping in order to pick up real life examples for this post, and I have begun to have the same feeling about the word like.

A real conversation from today:

A: “I saw that you liked his status.”

B: “Yeah, I figured it would be easier to like it than to explain why I didn’t like it.”

A: “Well, I didn’t like it. I don’t like things unless I completely support them.”

To be clear, this conversation is not unusual, nor is it a ridiculous example of commonly used jargon. So essentially, the 1994 Time Traveler would be walking around as confused about the word like as I was my first three months of college about the word pizza.

Still worse, consider the Czech 1994 Time Traveler. As the word like has now – due to Facebook, of course – bled into Czech to become its own verb: likovat. Oh, please imagine the look on his face, and then you may thank me.


Judging from what happens in the world, a selfie seems like the natural outcome of giving the world phones with built-in cameras and alcohol. Kim Kardashian has built an entire career on selfies and her total lack of shame.

Did you know that selfie was voted “word of the year” by Oxford Dictionary, after its use in the last year increased by 17,000%? Yes, a mild jump. Two years ago most people wouldn’t have understood this word, my dad still doesn’t understand it. Now, it’s used on a daily basis.

Oh, and let’s not forget the heap of spinoffs belfie (butt selfie), helfie (hairstyle selfie), welfie (workout selfie), and drelfie (drunk selfie).

Consider everyday sentences

Just look at the sentences below, think about how many times a day you use some variation of them. And then just imagine being someone who doesn’t understand the main components of the sentences.

I was going to tweet that, but they didn’t have Wifi at that café.

Did you see my post of horses, I tried to tag you? (An actual status update in my newsfeed this morning. Oh, newsfeed is another one!)

Did you see any of those Katy Perry GIFs? They’re hot.

Wanna Skype?


There’s this great episode of the Twilight Zone (Wordplay, 1985) in which one man realizes that words he knew start changing meaning. It begins when his neighbor refers to the dog as an encyclopedia. And – the Twilight Zone being the Twilight Zone – this trend continues until our hero is hunched over his kid’s ABC book relearning his words: Apple is now Shoe and Dog is now Wednesday.

I envision the 1994 Time Traveler with the same sort of predicament. In any case, if you really want to freak out, just have some pizza and think about what it would be like if you traveled to 2034.

People of 2014, what else? Fill out this list!

  1. #1 by Mary Widdicks on February 20, 2014 - 4:49 pm

    So true. I’ve often thought this about the words google and tweet. How easily do we saying things like “google it” on a daily basis? Even my 85 year old grandmother would use that phrase. Not sure about belfie, though. I’ll have to ask her. When I was a teenager, twitters and tweets were something birds did. There’s an entire episode of Thomas the Train (yes, I need better points of reference) where one of the trains is trying to make “twitters and tweets” with their steam funnel. Now I can’t even enjoy bad children’s cartoons without social media inserting itself. Anyway, great post!

    • #2 by Damien Galeone on February 22, 2014 - 7:33 am

      That’s a grest point! And another good – great – linguistic chunk, “google it.” Nicely put

  2. #3 by greg galeone on February 25, 2014 - 2:36 am

    great post dam. sometimes it’s nice to go back in film or song and listen to the lyrics or prose and you get a glimpse of the vernacular of the time. a wonderful example is cole porter’s “you’re the top”. -pepsodent, tower of pisa. mona lisa-good stuff there.

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