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shameless pleading

Plastic & elastic

 Pigeons plot in secrecy.

Dear Word Detective:  I was reading a book originally published in the late 1800s when I came across a reference to a character with a “plastic personality.” I was somewhat taken aback, thinking that plastic was a fairly new word (think “The Graduate”). However, upon searching your archives, I found this bit of light: “Prior to the invention of the ‘stuff’ sort of plastic, however, the term ‘plastic’ was used primarily as an adjective meaning ‘pliable’ or ‘moldable,’ having been quite logically drawn from the Greek ‘plastikos,’ or ‘fit for molding.’ Appearing in English first in the 16th century, this sense of ‘plastic’ was applied to everything from modeling clay to the ‘plastic,’ or highly impressionable, nature of political opinions among voters.” Well, first question answered. Because I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between “plastic” and “elastic,” I conducted a second search of your archives but failed to turn up the latter. Are they related? — John Pearson.

Hmm. I really need to pay closer attention. It wasn’t until I read through your question a second time that I realized you were quoting something I wrote ten years ago. Speaking of “plastic” in the “Graduate” sense (a 1967 film, in the course of which a friend of Dustin Hoffman’s father gives him “one word [of career advice]: plastics”), I have a question. Elsewhere in the 1960s, “plastic” became a popular slang epithet for something, or someone, considered inauthentic and phony. The Monkees, for instance, were considered a “plastic” pop group because they were invented by a TV network. Whatever happened to “plastic” in this “phony junk” sense? It came in handy.

As I noted in that column from 2002, what we think of as “plastic” today (“polymers of high molecular weight based on synthetic resins or modified natural polymers,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it) was developed in the early 20th century but didn’t come into widespread use until the 1950s.

While the signature quality of “plastic,” both as a noun and an adjective, is the ability to be molded into nearly any shape, and to permanently retain that shape, the point of “elastic” is just the opposite. Something that is “elastic” can be stretched, compressed, or twisted in several directions at once, but when the force is removed it will return to its original shape. “Elastic” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, derived, via Latin, from the Greek “elastos,” meaning “flexible.” The initial use of “elastic” in English was as an adjective applied to gases capable of spontaneous expansion; solid materials were first described as “elastic” later in that century. But “elastic” as a noun, usually meaning a cord or string suffused or interwoven with rubber, didn’t appear until the mid-19th century.

Just as “plastic,” originally an adjective meaning “pliable, moldable,” came to be applied to the mental states and emotions of people who were easily convinced of things, “elastic” began in the late 18th century to be applied to the sort of personality that “bounces back” from adversity or depression (“This elastic little urchin,” T. Carlyle, 1822). Apart from that sort of extended, psychological use, and having to do with the change of shape of substances, and having Greek roots, there’s no real connection between the two words.

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