To survive, language must evolve, yet it is resistant to certain forms of change. Most new words sparkle briefly, if at all, and then fade away. But new words are necessary. The world alters, and so does our vocabulary. Fresh ideas, values, products and objects of interest require fresh terminology.
As Michael Holroyd has written recently in these pages, some of this terminology can be repugnant. In an enjoyable column, Holroyd attacked politicians’ weakness for the dramatic and bureaucrats’ addiction to the opaque. Yet there are fields in which newfangled terms, even if cumbersome, are necessary. You cannot discuss quantum physics or theories of the brain without using language that registers the complexity of those fields. Technical terms are intended not to frustrate the non-specialist, but to do justice to intricate subjects.
In a society where technology is revered, and where science usually seems to occupy the intellectual high ground, it is inevitable that our vocabularies are continually being augmented with technical and quasi-technical items.
The pleasures of invention are conspicuous, and we have all savoured them. Still, we know that it is possible to neologise too extravagantly. Sir Thomas Browne, a brilliant 17th-century polymath, coined “literary” and “medical”, but his prose is so full of fiercely peculiar words that his books today seem baffling.
While combing the Oxford English Dictionary for Browne’s coinages, I noticed that among the words first recorded in the year of my birth (1974) are “bar-hopper”, “nanotechnology” and “shit-stirring”. I suspect that at the time these terms would have been dismissed as ephemeral oddities.
It is common to bat away linguistic novelty – “It won’t catch on”. Such disdain is tinged with anxiety, and to speak of “our” language is to identify the source of this fear. For while no one truly owns English or any other natural language, we feel proprietorial about the language that we speak and write. As a result we are apt to look on linguistic changes – including new words – as personal affronts.
Novel items of vocabulary distress people for two reasons: they attest to phenomena we don’t like or expect not to like (for instance, quantitative easing), or their very tone and appearance offend our sensibilities. Yet the offence novelties cause is a clue to their usefulness. They denote unfamiliar activities, marking the changing colours and textures of life. And while in their brashness they may exude all the phony confidence of a gatecrasher, they also refresh our perceptions.
One reason we deploy neologisms is that existing words are bleached by overuse. This is especially likely to happen with terms of approval or disapproval, which are highly susceptible to fashion. Perhaps advertising and other engines of hyperbole make a particular word seem crass. Or, more simply, you hear a tedious celebrity say in an interview that he can rustle up a wicked lamb tagine, and you decide that “wicked” has had its day; from now on you will pin your hopes on, for the sake of argument, “pimpalicious”.
There is nothing new about the aversion to neologism. The objects of loathing may be topical – one person reviles “blogosphere”, another “staycation” – but the loathing itself is ingrained. Two hundred and fifty years ago Samuel Johnson disparaged “an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language”. The offending term was the noun “finesse”.
It is clear that many words once deemed contemptible are now standard. Consider a list of terms formerly denounced as Americanisms: “lengthy”, “squatter”, “law-abiding”, “mileage”, “stunt”. Most readers are unlikely to recognise these as American in origin. We may in any case regard importing terms into British English from its American counterpart as harmless or even desirable. Resistance to American forms suggests a certain myopia about where English’s centre of gravity has been for most of the last 100 years.
The complaints made about new words are themselves studded with words that were once viewed with scepticism or indeed revulsion. Meanwhile most of the novelties that irk us are destined to perish. Even professional linguists have a record of exaggerating the likely durability of vogue words. In 2007, the word of the year according to Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary was “pod-slurping”, a term for illicitly using a device such as an iPod to download data from someone else’s computer. Even in Australia, it hasn’t exactly caught on.
So what makes a word stick? First of all, rather obviously, it has to be widely adopted – by a large number of people, and in different places. It also has to denote something of lasting significance: however well suited it is to a phenomenon, it will last only as long as the phenomenon in question lasts. It helps if it is unobtrusive and easy to use. And, to become embedded, it needs to generate derivative forms. To choose a much-quoted example, the use of “friend” as a verb has gained ground because of the popularity of Facebook, and now there are several related terms: I might defriend you, or unfriend you, or ponder whether you are friendable.
This is sure to upset my publisher, who shudders at the notion of what she calls verbcrime. Yet we have been turning nouns into verbs since Anglo-Saxon times, and Shakespeare delighted in doing so. Far more awkward is the enthusiasm for stringing nouns together: “student population health awareness training”. Neologisms are one means of avoiding this type of clunky expression.
A new word is a solution to a problem. Even if the problem is short-lived, and even if the word seems infelicitous, the innovation is an attempt to communicate in a more crisp, potent or evocative style.
Henry Hitchings – The Guardian,Saturday 5 February 2011