“What’s a hook-up, anyway?”




Words and meanings are slippery. Crossing cultures and time, words have a way of morphing.



Generational Syntactical Blunders


One evening after dinner, a young man visited our household for dessert and studying with my oldest daughter. My folks were visiting. Having taken an unusual liking to the respectful young man, my mother said as he and my daughter got up to study: “You two should hook-up—to study more often.”


I smirked, mostly to keep quiet. But I looked at my daughter, who looked back wide-eyed.  We both said: “Grannndddmmaaaaa??”




My mother had no idea what she’d just said.  We all laughed, letting off steam. Except my befuddled mother.


After the kids left, she looked around the table.  “So, what’s a hook-up these days?”


My father came to her rescue. Sort of.


“You know what happens when a pair of dogs gets together?”


Grandma blushed.



hookup (n.) [1]

also hook up, “connection,” 1903; modern slang verbal sense of “to meet for sex” is attested by 2003.


Somehow my mom had not caught up to 2003.  But it’s hard to shake one’s original grasp of words sometimes.



I explained that the word had become about the non-committal quickie, which proliferated on college campuses… and hopefully not among high school students.


But the incident got me thinking about words.  The past decade I’ve spent longer than I should on my book because I became fascinated by the morphing of Eskimo words. When I lived in Eskimo villages, when I wasn’t teaching, I was taking notes about village life and language.


I especially loved when the Eskimos took English words—for which they had no word and made them their own by adding the –aq suffix. Gum becomes gummam-aq.  Computer: computer-aq.  But this is more straightforward than the way words change meaning over time.


hobo (n.)[2]

1889…unknown origin… 19c. English dialectal hawbuck “lout, clumsy fellow, country bumpkin.” Possibly from ho, boy, a workers’ call on late 19c. western U.S. railroads.

Another word that has returned is hobo. My kids are always talking about hobos. I can’t shake the Box Car Children era image of railroad- riding bums, perhaps because a whole generation had lived through the Great Depression, when so many people rode the rails or hobo-ed around in search of work.


Despite my fascination with words, I hope my daughter’s new friend relates to the definitions of hobo or hook-up in only the most academic ways.  He did, however, send my daughter a text later saying he enjoyed meeting our family, but he especially enjoyed meeting grandma.


I bet!


bet [3]

1590s, as both a verb and noun, in the argot of petty criminals… probably a shortening of abet or else from obsolete beet “to make good,” from Old English bætan “make better…”


Have you or your loved ones had fun with the way words change?







17 thoughts on ““What’s a hook-up, anyway?”

  1. You should read Hanna Rosin’s excellent book “The End of Men,” which has a great chapter on today’s version of the hook-up culture. While I’ve heard several people – mostly parents – reacting with horror, I have to honestly say that I’m not sure it was any different when I was at Geneseo. It just didn’t make the news.


    • Totally agreed. I wasnt so much shocked by the concept, as by how common it has become to be open even public about it. Thanks for the great insight! It is always amazing to have hunches about cultural stuff confirmed even in anecdotal ways! I will have to check out the read yourecommend!


  2. It seems as if some young-ish adults have been using the term “hook up” in the old-fashioned sense lately. That has gotten me really confused.


    • Yup! Sounds the same here. I shared this post with my college class, and they had some similar comments on language in reverse – anyone not having a lot of contact with their generation — can be lost on the lingo! Also, professionally, I think also as our worlds become more specialized — so do the vocabularies. I read some blogs and they sound really official – about a computer product or the latest theories behind HR or management, and I shake my head. I need a dictionary — a specialized one to slog through! Organizations must make money creating their own specialized terms!


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