A good deal of slang depends on the use of words in a context far removed from their original meaning. If you say XYZ’s boots are “sick” or “wicked”, for instance, you mean you like them (Of course, you could just be talking about Posh Beckham’s footwear in which case the words mean exactly what the dictionary says, so carry on please!] Eddie Izzard, one of my all time favorite comedians, had a whole riff about the word “awesome” (clip above).
To this category of words belongs the phrase “the end of an era”. Did your neighborhood ice cream shop shut down? It’s obviously the end of an era. Are halter tops now acceptable sidewalk summerwear? It’s the end of an era! Does your mother have a job? Sigh, it’s the end of an era. Has The Himes given up his caps? It’s the end of an era, folks!
Occasionally – as in once in a long while – someone will come along and actually use it in an appropriate fashion. For example, George Orwell, writing about literature and literary criticism in the shadow of the Second World War:
About the end of the nineteen-twenties you get a book like Edith Sitwell’s book on Pope, with a completely frivolous emphasis on technique, treating literature as a sort of embroidery, almost as though words did not have meanings: and only a few years later you get a Marxist critic like Edward Upward asserting that books can be ‘good’ only when they are Marxist in tendency. In a sense both Edith Sitwell and Edward Upward were representative of their period. The question is why should their outlook be so different?
I think one has got to look for the reason in external circumstances. Both the aesthetic and the political attitude to literature were produced, or at any rate conditioned by the social atmosphere of a certain period. And now that another period has ended — for Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939 ended one epoch as surely as the great slump of 1931 ended another — one can link back and see more clearly than was possible a few years ago the way in which literary attitudes are affected by external events…
Almost every European between 1890 and 1930 lived in the tacit belief that civilization would last forever. You might be individually fortunate or unfortunate, but you had inside you the feeling that nothing would ever fundamentally change. And in that kind of atmosphere intellectual detachment, and also dilettantism, are possible. It is that feeling of continuity, of security, that could make it possible for a critic like Saintsbury, a real old crusted Tory and High Churchman, to be scrupulously fair to books written by men whose political and moral outlook he detested.
But since 1930 that sense of security has never existed. Hitler and the slump shattered it as the Great War and even the Russian Revolution had failed to shatter it. The writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one’s life but one’s whole scheme of values is constantly menaced. In such circumstances detachment is not possible.
It strikes me, from a vantage point sixty years on, that he might well be talking of the culture wars of the past decade or so. The difference is that we’re no longer talking of Fascism and Marxism and all the other fun “ism”s in global terms – instead it has come down to internal identity politics.
At the time Orwell was writing those words, one gets the feeling that his generation had a sense of what it meant to be British. National identities might tack to the Right or Left from time to time but ideologies were clothes that the nation liked to try on, they weren’t presented as the very fabric of our existence. God wasn’t going to descend from Heaven in a chariot of fire and lay waste to the Earth if we took a walk in the other guy’s garden. These days, however, with changes in the intra-national and international populations across wide swathes of the world, we’re thinking more and more about what it means to be Us.
Who are we, what are we doing here, where are we going? And what do we believe in?
All these thoughts (rather chaotic I must admit, while begging your indulgence as I work through them) were sparked off by an essay from another George – the excellent George Packer of The New Yorker – who writes about the working class in Ohio:
But the two-parent family was now available only to the “very privileged.” She said that she had ten good friends; eight of them were childless or, like her, unmarried with kids. “That’s who’s middle-class now,” she said. “Two parents, two kids? That’s over. People looked out for me. These kids nowadays don’t have nobody to look out for them. You’re one week away from (a) losing your job, or (b) not having a paycheck…You want somebody there who’s going to take care of us,” she said. “I’m very scared about who they put in there, because it’s either going to get a lot worse than it is or it’s going to keep going where it is, which is bad.” She almost gasped. “Just give us a break. There’s no reprieve. No reprieve.”
When will the class war ever finally drown out the culture war, if not in 2008? Under Republican rule in Washington, wages have stayed flat while income inequality has increased; the numbers of uninsured have soared; unemployment recently passed six per cent, its highest level since the early nineteen-nineties; gas and heating-oil prices have doubled, while basic food prices have gone up by fifty per cent; and the country’s financial system has come closer to collapse than at any moment since 1929. More profoundly, Republican dogma no longer offers convincing solutions, and in some cases it doesn’t even acknowledge the problems. (Income inequality has long been considered a nonissue in conservative free-market circles.) The question that Ronald Reagan asked voters to such devastating effect in 1980, when the white working class began turning away from Democrats—“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”—should, in theory, produce an equal and opposite effect this year.
Obama has had particular trouble with the prized demographic group that once delivered the Presidency to Roosevelt and his successors. Anecdotally, and in polls, unusually large numbers of working-class voters seem to remain undecided or determined to sit the election out, as if they couldn’t bring themselves to vote Republican this year but couldn’t fathom taking a chance on Obama. Roger Catt, a retired farmer and warehouse worker, who lives in a small town near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, characterized the choice this way: “McCain is more of the same, and Obama is the end of life as we know it.”
“The end of life as we know it”. Packs quite a bit more punch than “end of an era”, doesn’t it? I may not be in the same boat as the working class of Ohio but like them, I’m not used to feeling like flotsam caught in the cross currents of history. But that’s exactly how it does feel, and has felt for a while now as we rush towards… something.
Historically speaking, I know in the end the more things change, the more they remain the same and nothing is ever as bad as we think it is and certainly nothing is ever as lovely in the morning as it appeared at midnight. But still, there are times when I understand why clairvoyants do such brisk business.