12 November 2008

Words of the Year

This is the latest of Susie Dent's annual surveys of new words and expressions in English. This year her collection is offered in A—Z format — from adventure running to YAOI: that is, from extreme sports to Japanese gay manga porn. The activities which seem to have generated the most durable coinings this year are global finance, social networking, and ecology — all of which have hardly been out of the headlines in the last twelve months. Many of the new words will clearly not survive the fashions and whims which give rise to them — such as the rather cumbrous churnalism to describe the lazy recycling of unchecked stories in the press. And yet the reason for such a term's appearance is quite interesting.

Because of staff cuts, journalists now have to fill up to three times as much column inches of copy as they did in the 1980s. The same sort of etymological goodie occurs in the case of earmarxist - a critical term used for those politicians who designate funds for their own special projects. The term comes from the literal marking of an ear which was once used to identify livestock.

At the other extreme are terms whose success lies precisely in the fact that they are not attached to some fashionable phenomenon — and which can conversely attach themselves promiscuously to a variety of others — such as the prefix eco- in eco-warrior, eco-terrorist, and eco-town.

Two other things I was glad to learn from this year's collection were that organic matter had been discovered on a planet outside the solar system (an exoplanet) and that a femtocell offers enhanced communication access in areas with weak signal strength.

This is a spirited attempt to keep up with the rapid state of language change. I always enjoy these annual surveys, and as usual found it difficult to put the book down. I was also glad to note that this year an index had been provided.

Susie Dent, Words of the Year, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp.148, ISBN 0199551996

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