An entire neighborhood was seized with fear. Neighbors phoned neighbors to share information in tremulous voices. Men debated whether they should venture out or board the windows. Some dug guns from drawers and held them uncertainly in shaking hands.

A prowler was afoot.

It happened on an episode of “The Honeymooners” and I’ve been tittering ever since. Not because of Ralph Kramden’s usual antics and classic, vein-bursting outbursts but because of the term itself.

What the hell is a prowler, anyway? Why at one time did the very presence of one evoke terror in otherwise sturdy people? Is a prowler not simply one who prowls, like a cat or a reporter scrounging for a story?

Outside ancient sitcoms, you don’t hear the term so much anymore. These days, nervous people will call police to report armed men busting through doors, burglars in the commission of crimes or doped-out weirdoes on front porches.

The prowler has become a quaint relic, a leftover from a time when random crime was so uncommon, suspects had to be described in a broad and ambiguous manner. Go ahead. Phone your nearest neighbors and try to convince them that such an innocuous-sounding thing as a prowler should propel them into panic.

They’re all going to laugh at you.

Not that the once-feared prowler is the only term to fade into obscurity. The high-pants-wearing, fast-talking, derby-donning people of bygone generations used to say all sorts of curious things you just don’t hear anymore.

Behold what you wear to keep your legs and mid-region warm. Do you call them slacks, or trousers, or dungarees? Nossir, you do not. You call them jeans or simply, pants. And the idea that our parents and their parents needed so many different terms to describe their pants makes you wonder what they had to hide.

Personally, I don’t want to know.

Reach into your back pocket for your money and what are you plucking out? Why, it’s a wallet with all your cash, credit cards and fading photos. Only, back in the day, it would have been called a billfold. A perfectly fine word, but if you hear somebody utter the term today, you know that person was alive when gasoline was 10 cents a gallon but nobody cared because there weren’t any cars.

Inside the billfold was your money. There was a time when the hippest of the generation would refer to it as moolah or dough or bread. Men wearing kerchiefs over their faces and aiming fake guns fashioned out of a finger pointed through a shirt would accost people on the street and say: “Fork over the dough. This is a stick-up. And don’t think about phoning the fuzz, neither.”

But that doesn’t happen anymore. Because nobody uses a kerchief anymore, they use a scarf. The stick-up has become a robbery. There is no fuzz to phone because that term went out of style with the Mod Squad. And anyway, you wouldn’t phone them, you would call them. Nobody uses phone as a verb anymore, except for me in the very first paragraph of this column.

I don’t mean to say that the nomenclature of today is more bland or more descriptive than that used by our older kin, with their horn-rimmed glasses, huge hair and Werther’s Originals. I only mean that some words and terms expire, retire or simply take time off.

Who says rubbish anymore when they mean garbage or trash? Nobody, that’s who. And yet why is rubbish any more ungainly or unwieldy than those other terms? For one reason or another, it fell out of favor and you will hear the word only if you are watching “Happy Days” and Ritchie is being assigned his chores.

Why are expensive things no longer referred to as dear? A somehow playful term, it conjures the image of your beloved gramma beholding the sight of a new-fangled hair dryer in a storefront window, lamenting that the item cost too much to be earnestly craved.

Why is the act of being drunk no longer synonymous with being tight? We still use hammered or wasted or plowed, but tight – more concise and elegant – has taken on a new job as a descriptor for a person who is cheap.

Why is the art of romance no longer called courting? Why are we no longer sweet on people and driven to woo them until we become their beaux? Is it because hooking up and booty call are easier to rhyme in song?

What happened to getting hot instead of angry? Why are the fashion-deficient people of society considered dorks instead of squares? Why do we no longer react to positive things by declaring “bully!” and stroking our handlebar mustaches?

Why are happy things sweet instead of swell or keen? Why is cool still cool while nifty is not?

Language itself is a live thing, always evolving and always separated by chasms of age. You 30- and 40-somethings think you are the very picture of trendiness, chillaxing, trying to score, getting your freak on.

Your kids view you as artifacts, something destined to be on display at the Museum of Really Old Things with Antiquated Customs. They pick up the latest trends in talk at the speed of the Internet while you still believe that adding “izzel” after any word will preserve your hipness.

It’s just lame, man.

Political correctness is responsible for some rehabbing of the language. Out of decency, we came up with new terms for bad deals, thriftiness and the act of giving something away and then taking it back.

Mostly though, it is just the Kangaroo Court of society that declares one term dead while giving life to another. Somewhere along the way, the nation collectively decided that prowlers and trousers, rubbish and billfolds had done their time and should be taken out behind the barn and shot.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I overstate the antiquity to which some words have fallen. If my inclusion of your favorite words and phrases has left you boiling, feel free to phone me and give me a piece of your mind. By all means, defend your favorite nouns, verbs and adjectives and give me the tongue-lashing I deserve.

That would be neat.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter. If this column steams you, tell him a thing or two at [email protected]


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