It happened once when I was getting my hair cut; another time when my mother was pinning up the hem of a dress I was wearing. My scalp started to tingle as if a thousand tiny fairies were dancing on my head. Even though I knew my hair wasn’t sticking out like a porcupine, it felt like it was. This scalp shiver doesn’t happen often, there’s no predicting when it will occur, and the enjoyable sensation lasts only a few seconds. I’ve wondered why my scalp randomly tingles and tightens and if anyone else has the same experience.
I found out this sort of tickle-thing going on with my scalp has a name. It’s ASMR or autonomous sensory meridian response, defined as a pleasant tingling sensation that originates on the back of the scalp and often spreads to the neck and upper spine, that occurs in some people in response to a stimulus, such as a particular kind of sound or movement.
Although I’ve been enjoying this scalp prickling since I was a child, the name ASMR is new; it just showed up for the first time in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2021.
That’s the thing about words: they’re evolving just like we are. For example, prior to March, 2020 I’d never heard the word COVID. But before I could find a mask and put it on, COVID became a common household five-letter word (with one too many letters, if you ask me). COVID-19 went from being a brand new word to becoming a tried-and-true entry in the dictionary. This happened more quickly than any other word ever—in a mere 34 days. Sadly, COVID will forevermore be part of our vocabulary. We may be rid of the disease someday but the word is here to stay—whether we all wear masks and get vaccinated or not.
Remember when bubbles were what we made when we blew through a little wand dipped into a plastic container of liquid soap? Their delicate, floating opalescence represented the innocent wonder of childhood. Nowadays a bubble is a small group of family and/or friends who regularly interact only with one another in order to minimize the chance of spreading a contagious disease. Before COVID, the magic of bubbles was that we couldn’t catch one no matter how gently we tried. Today, bubbles keep us from catching things, but those things aren’t magic, they’re deadly diseases. The new definition has been added to the dictionary.
Another new word in the 2021 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary is crowdfunding. That’s where someone goes online and asks a large number of people to donate to a cause (i. e., a business startup or a trip for educational purposes). If this concept is intriguing to you, let’s see how it works. You send me money and I’ll use it to travel to Hawaii where I’ll research which is better: the mai tai or the piña colada. Then I’ll write about what I learn in a future column. I think that’s how crowdfunding works.
How do new words surface? In the past, publications such as the New York Times are credited with creating many of the new lexicon. I suppose the internet is the more likely source today. The word ritzy first appeared as an entry in the dictionary in 1919 (inspired by Ritz hotels), pizzazz in 1937 (first used in Harper’s Bazaar magazine) and grunge in 1965 (derived from the word grungy, a combination of grubby and dingy).
My family used to play a game we called Dictionary. (When playing a game in the neighborhood such as Tag or Kick the Can, someone had to be “It. ” We’d all call out, “Not It! ” and whoever said it last was “It. ” How very equitable we were.) With the game Dictionary, “It” picked out a word in the dictionary which no one was familiar with. We each wrote down a made-up definition while It wrote down the true definition. Then It read each anonymous definition aloud and the players voted on which one was the real definition. The player who got the most votes won that round.
My Uncle Bill fondly recalls this game and just recently sent a challenge: come up with a definition for the word hispid. The answers he received were: 1) A balloon with a slow leak; 2) Covered with thick hair or bristles; 3) The hole where a knitted cable stitch permutes; 4) a small puddle left in the woods from a gentleman’s piddling. One of these is the true definition.
When you send your crowdfunding donation, also submit your vote and we’ll see which answer wins.