Donna Levin: The Zeitgeist Checklist, or What Word Will Tell the World

There are many ways in which we imagine that future generations (or visiting aliens) will study modern life. Reruns of I Love Lucy. Tabloid newspapers.

But to those scholars of the future (or of other planets) who might enjoy more painstaking research, I say, follow the spellchecker.

I was an early adoptor of the word processor. This isn’t important to my story, but you won’t begrudge me my moment in the sun: my dad bought me an IBM Displaywriter in 1982. It had 8” floppies and no hard drive, and, with the printer, cost $10,000. That would be about $120,000 today. (Well, no, but it feels like it, if you’re house-hunting, anyway.)

I loved my Displaywriter, and my only regret is that, after letting it sit in the basement for some years, I had it hauled away, rather than donating it to the Tech Museum in San Jose. (I am including a picture from Google Images.) When friends saw it for the first time, they were amazed; five years later those same “friends” scoffed, “where’d you find that, a dumpster in back of Circuit City?”

In 1991, I finally did get something more-up-to date. It was a Toshiba, and I don’t remember if it came with WordPerfect installed, or if I had to pay extra, but that was what I used. I loved WordPerfect. It had its own printed manual written with easy-to-follow instructions. I declined to use a mouse, in favor of memorizing the commands, which I did in two days. Granted, it had many fewer features than what we’ve become accustomed to, but as a woman who learned to “keyboard” on a manual typewriter, I felt like Chuck Yaeger.

When WordPerfect proofed the document for me, it highlighted “internet,” and yes, “Internet” as a misspelled words. I’m sure it would have highlighted “google” and “Google” as misspelled, too, if those words had existed.

I use Microsoft Word now, like the rest of the planet, except for parts of Upper Michigan (just kidding—no letters please) and I regard the spellchecker as a gatekeeper and chronicler of modern culture. Word acknowledges all of the following: convo, personkind, paywall, kerfuffle, clickbait, and pothead. All but the last of these are recent entries in the lexicon. The word “spellcheck,” is obviously there, too. (I’m glad that Word doesn’t put itself in the role of moral arbiter, the way that the iPhone does, when it tries to change the F word to “duck.”)

The Word spellchecker is multicultural. The following Yiddish words are included: nebbish. Chutzpah. Schmoose. Kibitz. Those aren’t so surprising, but, “schnorrer”? “mamzer”? How did they get in there, when “schmendrick” and “gonif” didn’t make the cut?

I do wonder who decides these things. Why isn’t “rager” on the list yet? Is there something my daughter isn’t telling me? Why are Snoop Dogg and Eminem recognized, but not Chris Hemsworth? Would he have made it if Snow White and the Huntsman had done better box office overseas?

And spellcheck isn’t just a gluttonous blob that swallows everything that appears on Facebook more than twice. The word “quoth,” as in “quoth the raven,” is no longer considered legit. Neither is “shoppe.” If I had the energy to read Chaucer, I know could find a lot more.

The other day I typed “coolsculpting.” I was doing research, which is what I will say if and when someone checks my browsing history and sees terms like “untraceable poison” and “highly recommended rehab centers.” When Word underlined coolsculpting in red, I experimented by making the first letter uppercase: Coolsculpting. Et voila! (Apparently, “voila” is, um, kosher.) This tells me that the future of this new technology, which aims to replace liposuction, is secure.

What our descendants, let alone aliens, with think of our Botox, doublethink, and techspeak world, is less clear.


Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.

Image by Christina @ / Unsplash