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The OUP UK Word of the Year is … ‘big society’

Let’s hear a woot (or not?) for the Big Society!

Each year, as the announcement of Oxford’s Word of the Year approaches, I’m reminded of some words from the playwright Dennis Potter: ‘the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in’. I sometimes wonder whether that’s why I like new words so much – mint-new shiny coinages that have no murky past and that crucially, have everything to play for.

But that can’t be the whole story, because, however romantically we like to imagine the making of new words – as a flash of inspiration by one individual in a single moment in time – the prosaic truth is that only 1% of all new words are really, really new. The vast majority is made up of older words which have been resurrected and repurposed.

So, if it’s not for their absolute originality, what is it about new words that fascinates so?

This year’s shortlist for the word of 2010 gives, I think, a pretty good view of the attractions on offer.

Oxford’s 2010 Words of the Year:

The real signs of the times

The first and most obvious gift that new words bring is an understanding of the times we’re living in. New words can collectively serve as the pithiest of shorthands for what we are thinking and doing, right at this moment. Oxford’s shortlists for their word of the year in 2008 and 2009 left no doubt as to the impact of the recession on our vocabulary. We struggled to keep up as toxic debt, deleveraging, and quantitative easing muscled their way into currency.

Our final choice for the word of 2010, the coalition’s new dream of the big society, is no less a mirror of the times, in this case of the extraordinary political events of the year. The term’s success within a short period of time has been impressive, underscored by the ease with which it is now played upon: when the new PM visited China, both the Times and the Guardian headlined his challenge as ‘Cameron confronts the biggest society’.

Bottling history

A single word or phrase can often distil history as powerfully as any photograph, and many of the year’s crop of new, or newly resurrected, words and phrases are particularly event-driven. Los 33, a curious mixture of Spanish and English when spoken, was the only reference needed for the lost and saved Chilean miners and the entire spectacular story surrounding them. Earlier in the year top kill, like tsunami a decade before it, exemplified the passing of a hitherto technical term into the mainstream. The procedure, designed to secure a leaking oil well, sadly failed in the case of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Twittering on, and on…

At the start of the twenty-tens, social networking showed no let up in its influence on our lives and hence our language. Among the Twitter offshoots this year were twinterviews, twetiquette, and the shortlisted tweeps, made up of ‘Twitter’ and ‘peeps’. Together with upcycling and clickjacking, tweeps provides a near-perfect example of the most productive process behind language change today, the blend.

Wordplaying for laughs

There is another big attraction which must score well with those casual observers of our language who lap up new words: they are fun. We may not relish all of them, but few of us could claim we weren’t that little bit curious when we heard showmance, vuvuzela (a wonderful example of the ready adoption of a foreign term when it suits), Boris bike, and upcycling. The virtual world’s bespoke cry of triumph, woot (or is it w00t?) can seem nonsensical to those outside the in-group. But then isn’t that the point? English arouses passion in its users like no other language. It has no owners: it belongs as much to those for whom it is a second or third language as to its native users, and it can go wherever it likes. New words are the brazen face that English shows the world, they are its shop window. Some delight; some disgust, but as long as they keep on coming, surely our mercurial language is safe.

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