Gerry McGovern publishes a weekly email about the web, customer service, and how to improve website/intranet performance.  It’s a good read; he really should have a blog.  In his latest installment , “WORDS THAT WORK: SEARCH WORDS VERSUS WEBSITE WORDS,” Gerry highlights a new book by uber-pollster Frank Luntz, who claims that people are changing the words they use describe certain things.  Here are a few examples form Gerry’s list, taken from the book (i believe):

WAS: Used car NOW: Pre-owned vehicle
WAS: Secretary NOW: Administrative assistant
WAS: Housewife NOW: Stay-at-home-mum
WAS: Stewardess NOW: Flight attendant
WAS: Waiter/Waitress NOW: Server
WAS: Garbage removal NOW: Sanitation services
WAS: Gay marriage NOW: Same-sex marriage
WAS: Impotence  NOW: E.D./Erectile dysfunction

Ok, nothing dramatic here; we’ve heard them all; except maybe for the English “mum.”  However Gerry did a little poking around with Overture (Yahoo Search Marketing), He found out that in December 2006:

Some 730,958 people searched for “used car,” while only 949 searched for “pre-owned vehicle.”

Nearly 73,000 people searched for “housewife” (122,000 searched for “desperate housewife”), while only 43 searched for stay-at-home-mum.

Over 30,000 searched for “gay marriage” while 19,000 searched for ” same-sex marriage”.

While about 17,000 people search for “impotence”, over 100,000 search for “erectile dysfunction.”

This little bit of research is suggestive; and adds another dimension to Luntz’s work.  We all know that word usage changes; some changes are accepted, other not.  For instance, “flight attendant” and “server” have, almost, replaced “stewardess” and “waiter/waitress,” respectively.  But I’m not sure “pre-owned” is ever going to overtake “used”.  It’s no surprise that “erectile dysfunction (ED)” is more common than “impotence” given the barrage of ads on the TV over the past years for Viagra, etc.

Perhaps many such changes are for those words and phrases we use in public, in political discourse, in formal settings — the speech of political correctness, in a sense.  But when we’re alone at our computer using Google or Yahoo, “we revert back to older, more basic words. Words that might be cruder, shorter and simpler,” as Gerry wrote. 

And through Google and Yahoo, we’ll be able to chart such changes in word usage over time.