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English rules
New language

Have you ever invented a new word? Probably. Children, for instance, do it all the time, forming nonexistent language. Foreign speakers of English also resort to word coinage. After all, they think, if we may paper walls, book tickets and shelve plans, why can’t we, e.g., wardrobe our coat?

People enjoy coining new words. When BBC Radio asked its listeners to come up with some English neologisms, the result was over a thousand proposals sent in within the first ten minutes of the programme. The thing is, no matter how witty and ingenious words like fagony (a smoker’s cough) or footbrawl (a stadium riot) may be, they probably won’t catch on. To enter a language for good, new words must become established through usage. Popular writers, politicians or journalists may sometimes help, but at the end of the day it’s always the acceptance of the public that does the trick. One thing is for sure–more words come into the English language than depart it. At least judging by the latest editions of dictionaries. The famous Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary has recently refreshed the language by adding 12,000 new items to its 2005 edition.

English is a flexible, welcoming language, always ready to invite newcomers to its lexical treasury. One reason is that some of the existing expressions somehow go out of fashion and are replaced by newer words. It is not so trendy to say shopping mall any more–we now go to retail parks. If you are in a boring place, remember to call it a dead zone. I’m intrigued by the career of the word career in the position of an adjective, as in career woman (simply meaning a successful one). But my favourite career adjectives of the last few years are power and quality. They are here to take the place of good old good. To sleep well, you take a power nap, and when you enjoy yourself you say you’re having quality time.

Slang has always had a fairly high word turnover in English. Today’s hottie is old news tomorrow. So the following recent examples of colloquial nouns referring to people are not guaranteed to be so fresh when you’re reading them:
yobbo (an aggressive youth), gamer (a big fan of computer games), crustie (a dirty homeless person), eye candy (a pretty but unintelligent girl), muso (someone who knows everything about music), to mention just a few. Computers and the Internet have also brought about a number of new ways to describe their users, including my favourite, silver surfer for an elderly enthusiast of the Web. Some more examples are: techie (a computer expert), newbie (his opposite) and the adjective computerate (just about able to use it). Trademarks becoming parts of the language have been a well-known phenomenon in English. We have lots of examples of brands that are now so well-established we often don’t realise they were proper names once (hoover, sellotape, biro, etc). Anything new on that front? First of all, the word Google. You may Google everything and everybody these days. Two more examples: to Botox somebody (to inject the wrinkle-remover around the eyes) and a Taser gun (that fires little electric darts to make an assailant unable to move). Both trademarks and both rather symbolic of the way of life of a 21st-century woman… And finally, one of the popular ways to create new vocabulary is to glue together two parts of existing words to form a new meaning. There are dozens of examples of this trick in new English (kidult, netiquette, webliography, etc), but it’s the media that have been especially willing to accept such blends. By clipping and juggling the words advertisement, information, education, entertainment and commercial, TV people now have legitimate names for several new media genres: advertainment, advertorial, infomercial, edutainment and infotainment. It’s easy to work out what they mean.

Richard Highbrow


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