Word Watch

A selection of terms that have newly been coined, that have recently acquired new currency, or that have taken on new meanings, compiled by the executive editor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.

corporate conciergenoun, someone hired to help other employees with their personal errands, such as buying gifts and theater tickets, hiring nannies, and arranging for car and home repairs: “He is a concierge, apparently the first corporate concierge in America, the head porter of a big company that has decided it is a good idea to have somebody on the payroll minding other workers’ personal business so they can keep their minds on their work" (Wall Street Journal).

BACKGROUND: The corporate concierge referred to above works at the headquarters of PepsiCo, in Purchase, New York. He was hired after an employee survey indicated that workers were under stress and had no free time for personal errands. PepsiCo’s concierge (the word goes back to a Latin term meaning “fellow slave”) typically handles more than 20 requests a day—a pace that means both he and his assistant must often take work home at night, and hence have little free time of their own.

hydraulic bollardnoun, a perimeter-protection device that prevents unauthorized vehicles from entering or exiting a given area by shooting two three-foot-long steel cylinders housed in the ground up into those vehicles: “Hidden Valley, the private, residential development 35 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, became the world’s first to purchase a $50,000 hydraulic bollard. . . . About 28 vehicles have been damaged since the bollard was installed last April. Its use sparked a local controversy and threatened lawsuits” (Roanoke [Va.] Times & World-News). BACKGROUND: The hydraulic bollard—used primarily to protect embassies, airport runways, and nuclear facilities— is the most extreme device yet employed by a community seeking to insulate itself from rising crime and traffic congestion. Neighborhoods across the country are more commonly turning ro such protective measures as walls, barbed wire, and round-the-clock guards; in some parts of the country the gating of affluent subdivisions—said to increase property values as well as reduce crime—has become routine.

red-diaper babynoun, an American born to leftists who were active in the United States from about 1905 to the 1950s: “He was an archetypal 'red-diaper baby,’whose Polishborn parents were active in left-wing causes” (St. Louis Post Dispatch).

BACKGROUND: Hundreds of thousands of people passed in and out of leftist circles in the United States during roughly the first half of the century. Perhaps 50,000-100,000 of their progeny are alive today. The term red-diaper baby, which may be at least sixty years old, has sustained renewed currency of late, especially in connection with documentaries about the children and efforts to organize reunions of them. During the “Red Scare” of the 1950s red-diaper babies tended to be moved around a great deal if their parents had gained notoriety or been fired or jailed for their beliefs. Feeling detached from mainstream culture and being sent to the same progressive schools and summer camps, many of them formed strong bonds with one another. During the 1960s a significant number of red-diaper babies of college age were active in campus protest movements, notably Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). If the exact number of red-diaper babies cannot be computed, neither can the origin of the term be pinpointed. The most commonly held theory is the simplest: that the word red refers to communism. A second traces the term to members of the Communist Party in California during the 1920s, who reportedly used it as a derogatory label for those who they felt took their position in the organization for granted. A third theory, colorful if improbable, holds that Communists in the 1920s were so poor that they used the red flags they received in return for Parry dues as diapers for their babies.

WASP Rot Syndromenoun, a distinct decline in the economic, political, social, and intellectual hegemony once enjoyed by America’s most privileged social class, composed largely of white AngloSaxon Protestants: “I have a confession: My family has a social disease. I call it the WASP Rot Syndrome. . . . knowing firsthand about WASP Rot is why the defeat of the handsome clubman George Bush did not surprise me” (Abigail Trafford in The Washington Post).

BACKGROUND: WASP Rot Syndrome is a recent expansion of the term WASP Rot, which Trafford coined in a 1982 book. The phenomenon it refers to has been documented by sociologists, historians, and other observers. They posit several causes of WASP Rot Syndrome (even while they grant numerous exceptions to it), among them the social exclusivity common in this class in the early part of the century, which served to limit new blood and ideas; a tendency in younger generations to rely on trust funds rather than building new capital; the myth of “effortless” success, which helped erode the boldness characteristic of this group in earlier generations; an increased self-absorption and consequent reduced involvement with charitable causes; and, in Trafford’s words, the “revolt of WASP women,” whose talents, energies, and sacrifices—now often channeled into independent careers— once helped ensure their families’ success.