Each year, various dictionaries judge and announce a “word of the year” or several “words of the year”. Sometimes these are new words, sometimes they are old words that got a good work-out during the year in question. I’m a fan of new words because they demonstrate something I try to tell people who don’t like what they consider the destruction of the English language: and that is that English, like all languages except dead ones, is constantly evolving. And while pedants don’t like this evolution, it has one significant positive aspect. It means that the language is continuing on. In an era of globalisation when linguists worry about multitudes of languages dying out, that has to be a good thing.
In the last few years, the Collins Dictionary words of the year have been “binge-watch” (2015), “photobomb” (2014) and “geek” (2013). In 2014, Chambers Dictionary announced “overshare” as its word of the year. Macquarie Dictionary, an Australian English dictionary, allows people to vote for their word of the year and then chooses one by committee as well. Here are the committee’s choices:
2014 – mansplain
2013 – infovore
2012 – phantom vibration syndrome
2011 – burqini
2010 – googleganger
2009 – shovel-ready
2008 – toxic debt
2007 – pod slurping
And here are the people’s choices:
2014 – shareplate
2013 – onesie
2012 – First World problem
2011 – fracking
2010 – shockumentary
2009 – tweet
2008 – flashpacker
2007 – password fatigue
And the winner is… the people, clearly. Some of the committee’s choices I’ve never heard of and the others are all jargon or buzz-words or things that can frequently be heard coming from the mouths of politicians, which is enough of a condemnation in itself. On the other hand, the people’s choices are all words I’ve heard of and used (with the exception of flashpacker – we can’t always be right) and which continue to have relevance to this day. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then… well, you get the idea.
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary outlines the various different ways in which new words are created including borrowing from other languages, acronymic formations, functional shifts, blending two words, combining word elements, imitation of sounds, the transfer of personal or place names, fore-clipping and back-clipping (the shortening of words by removing syllables at the front or back of the word) and folk etymology (it kind of sounds like another word already in the language so it morphs into that and takes on a new meaning). But perhaps the most important is literary and creative coinage.
William Shakespeare is credited with inventing and/or popularising over 1,700 words now in everyday use including majestic, unreal, laughable, champion, equivocal and submerge. He did this by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words, and simply making up entirely new expressions. When you look at the samples above, you can almost see how he did it. Majestic from majesty, unreal from real, submerge from merge. Sometimes the simplicity of genius is even more astounding than the complexity of it.
These days the writers of fantasy, dystopian and science fiction are the ones leading the way in the literary invention of new words. The 2011 Macquarie Dictionary people’s choice of “fracking” as word of the year would already have been familiar to fans of those genres. Because “frack” is the swear word of choice in the Battlestar Galactica universe. Yes, it means something different if you’re talking about coal seam gas exploration, a shortened form of “fracturing” but the controversial nature of the practise and the ease with which it has now taken on negative connotations surely has a little something to do with its alternative use.
The invention of new words is an awesome responsibility in both senses of the word – wonderful and overwhelming at the same time. Let’s not leave it to the committees because obviously they suck at it. We, as writers, have an advantage because we’re working and experimenting with language all the time. But in the end, the people will speak – or not speak, as the case may be – the new words they like and those they don’t will simply fall by the wayside. Which, I hope, is where “pod slurping”, “googleganger” and “inforvore” have already gone.