“The circle of the English language,” observed an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, “has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.” Let’s wander out of that well-defined circle.
Catriona Tippin aka @ProofReadingTip gives us some food for thought about new words.
Ironically, it’s difficult to think of anything original to say about new words. There’s usually a burst of publicity surrounding the annual announcement of the Oxford Dictionary Online’s latest additions. Selfie was the last ‘new word of the year’, previous examples include omnishambles, and cyberbullying. Writers, take care – a new word needs more than publicity. Expand your vocabulary when a word is really well-established. Nothing will date your writing more than an ill-chosen word that’s out of fashion.
Here are a few thoughts on how the English language acquires new words, accompanied by a few random examples. Some food for thought, and perhaps some inspiration.
Words develop new meanings
Our technological age rushes new meanings into existing words. We’re all happy moving a mouse around now, and it’s a long time since a menu applied only to a choice of food. Words can start life as acronyms, like scuba and laser.
Words evolve. Spate used to mean a torrent and now means a flurry. Hopefully used to mean ‘in a hopeful manner’ but now means ‘it is hoped’ and anticipates a good outcome. I see a couple of words undergoing change now: protagonist and savant. Protagonist is losing its exclusive use to describe the solitary hero/actor/character/cast member. We now hear of a number of protagonists. Savant is often used to describe someone on the autistic spectrum with a special skill, rather than a learned or wise person.
There are two words undergoing changes I’m resisting so far: legendary and literally. Legendary once applied only to fictional characters but now seems to describe anyone famous. We’ll have to use mythical instead. Literally has begun to mean metaphorically. This semantic drift is to be resisted – it’s a useful word with its original meaning.
Retronyms are interesting. Some words now need an adjective to restore their original meaning: acoustic guitar, real tennis and dairy ice cream. I’ve also encountered what I suspect are a couple of spelling changes heading towards acceptance. Pronunciation is being replaced by pronounciation, because of the spelling of pronounce, I guess. Sanserif is replacing sans serif or sans-serif.
Verbs are wrestled from nouns when needed, for example, access and impact. The 2012 Olympics increased use of to medal and to podium. You can be headquartered somewhere now, and you might decide to message everyone because you want to party. Our current fascination with social media has given us interesting new uses of verbs. We friend and unfriend, follow and unfollow, like and unlike in new ways.
Over the centuries, writers have enriched our language
Chaucer and Shakespeare coined and/or first recorded hundreds of words. An assortment of writers have given us utopia, gargantuan and yahoo. Science fiction provided robot and cyberspace. And from children’s authors? We have Lewis Carroll’s conflation of chuckle and snort to create chortle. And (allegedly) nerd from Dr Seuss. Sometimes writing demands a new word. Go for it.
So how about a whole vocabulary? Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, and Russell Hoban in Ridley Walker, immerse the reader in an extraordinary, and rewarding, experience. Perhaps the literary world is overdue another foray into an imaginary world complete with an imagined language.
Finally, enjoy experimenting with your character’s names. ‘Nominative determinism’ doesn’t need to be as obvious as the ‘Happy Families’ card game’s Mr Brick the Builder. There’s a subtle suitability to invented names like Bilbo and Katniss, which add to the reader’s perception of their respective characters. Embiggen your writing with cromulent words (advice from Bart Simpson, not me).
Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for two national educational charities, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).