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Language review 2013: from bitcoin to sharknado

Everyone loves a new word. When Oxford announces its Word of the Year, I sometimes detect behind the buzz of expectation a pang of disappointment that the chosen ‘winner’ isn’t a brand new invention. The romantic allure of a mint-new coinage, the inspiration of a single moment in time, is hard to resist.

The truth is that only 1% of all new words are totally new, and of those an even smaller percentage are conjured up out of thin air. The vast majority of coinages are the product of some kind of repurposing, and the result has always been a mix of tradition and innovation. The words of 2013 tell this story well.

The rise of the blend

Back in 2003 when I wrote my first language report, a survey of recent language change, I estimated that about 5% of all new words were ‘blends’: assemblages of parts of existing words to make a new one. If Oxford’s longlist this year is anything to go by, this percentage is on the up. It includes six such terms: precariat, fatberg, schmeat and frankenburger, twerk, and sharknado. Blends are often clunky, and this crop is no exception, but each of them made a big initial impact and seemed also nicely apt for the curious phenomena they described (respectively, a social class living in a state of financial insecurity, a giant fat ball in London’s sewers, a lab-grown burger x 2, a hip-thrusting, bottom-shaking dance move, and a shark-infested tornado). In many ways, 2013 was the year of the linguistic combo.

Oxford’s longlist also provides an excellent example of another mechanism of language change, in which (often to the sound of a nation’s outrage), a noun becomes a verb. Showrooming is a new and crafty practice whereby shoppers check out a product (over-)thoroughly in-store before buying it more cheaply online. It seems a bland and unobtrusive term for something that is said to have brought down more than one major retail chain, but a word was needed and the gap neatly filled.

Minding the gaps

If there is one thing that almost guarantees a linguistic invention, it’s a new discovery, and this year provided two that might give hope to those searching for innovation on Oxford’s list. For over 100 years, scientists have been calling one member of the raccoon family the ‘olingo’. In August, however, a curator at Washington’s Smithsonian Museum of Natural History realized that the animal living in the cloud forests of Colombia is actually a different species altogether. A new name was called for, and Kristofer Helgen made the simple if rather safe choice of olinguito, Spanish for ‘little olingo’. Meanwhile, a new chemical element was discovered – its importance led to its temporary name being chosen for our longlist, though we may hope that ununpentium has a slightly snappier successor.

Sometimes of course a lack of inventiveness can mean greater transparency (who can forget the mistake of ‘deleveraging’ from 2009?). This year’s longlist includes zero hours, binge-watch, and bedroom tax, all of which succinctly do their jobs. Bitcoin, the internet currency whose name made Oxford’s final eight, may be a little more subtle, but it is still admirably clear.

If ‘sharknado’ seems unlikely to blaze across our skies for very long, another movie-driven candidate on this year’s longlist may have a better outlook. Catfishing is the practice of  fabricating an online identity in order to trick another person into a romantic liaison. The name comes from a 2010 documentary charting the fate of one such relationship. It features a discussion about how catfish put in a tank of live cod during transportation keep the latter alert and active, thus ensuring better quality flesh at the end. Thanks to the film’s subject ‘catfishing’ slipped into the vernacular to mean online dating of the duplicitous kind. Its curiosity value – and the fact that we clearly needed a name for digital deceit – stand it in good stead to last beyond this year.

Which brings us almost to the end of Oxford’s choices. The final two words on the British longlist have a definite new feel to them. First there is chapulling, an edgy word rooted in a Turkish insult for dissidents but which was quickly appropriated by them as a positive nickname and led to the word meaning the action of fighting for one’s democratic rights. As the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrated, the language of protest is always powerful, and ‘chapulling’ had arguably the greatest viral power of all candidates this year (followed closely by the harlem shake, another candidate on our longlist thanks to the thousands of video posts of comedy sketches performed to the novelty track).

Time for your close-up

The single Word of the Year, however, and the one which charted the most emphatic progress on the linguistic graph of 2013, was selfie, the cheeky self-portrait uploaded to a social networking site and a word that is almost new, but not quite. But in its simplicity and versatility (demonstrated by the amount of riffing we’ve seen already, including the ‘legsie’ and the ‘belfie’), it’s clearly a term for our times. Exactly 100 years ago, the cinematic close-up was born – perhaps the ‘selfie’ is its natural successor.

I’ll be listening out for that faint note of disappointment when I tell people about Oxford’s words of 2013, but I’m confident it will be less obvious this time. This year, those terms that made the most impact may yet convince New-Word Romantics that novelty can come in many colours.

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