What do we love about new words?
The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries keep watch on our collective neology and select a word—or words–of the year: a word that is both forward-looking and reflects the culture of the current year. From 2004 we’ve had chav, podcast, carbon-neutral, locavore, hypermiling, unfriend, refudiate, squeezed middle, the verb GIF, and selfie. And in the UK, which has somewhat different sensibilities, the list reads chav, sudoku, bovvered, carbon footprint, credit crunch, simples, big society, omnishambles and selfie. The Word of the Year for 2014 was vape, edging out the short-listed finalists slacktivism, normcore, contactless, bae, budtender, and indyref.
In class, we’ve been discussing how new words are created. We talk about fixation: pre- (unfriend), suf- (selfie), in- (congratu-effin-ations), and circum- (embiggen). We explore the homonymy of prefixes and suffixes, and meaning of the word inflammable, which prompts discussion of the difference between ingrate and ingratiate. One student asks–in jest–why infallible doesn’t mean “able to fall into.”
We talk about acronyms and initialisms and the evolution of LOL and FAQ from “el-oh-el” and “ef-ay-que” to “loll” and “fak.” I find that my students are great verbers of nouns: They Facebook. They GIF. They gym. They library. They also reduplicate, compounding words to specify or intensify. I ask them the difference between a writer writer and a writer’s writer. “One makes a living and one doesn’t,” someone offers.
The whys of word creation
Our discussion goes on to the whys of word creation. New words encapsulate current ideas but also to express our identities as language users—irony, rebellion, erudition—and to characterize others, like the 2004 Word of the Year, chav, the British epithet for loutish youth in designer clothes. We talk about the accidental and logical leaps made by language users and how some of them end up as folk creations, like refudiate, the 2010 Word of the Year. I recount my own childhood confusion over hearing on television that American soldiers were fighting “gorillas” in Southeast Asia and tell them of the rejected job applicant who felt his department was often “the escape goat.” I offer my prediction that in fifty years the spelling segue will be edged out by the spelling segway.
I always learn something new from the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list, and I’m often surprised by my own and my students’ reactions to new usages.
Clippings frequently rub me the wrong way for some reason. When I am in a conversation where someone used words like cray, vacay, and bro, the usages somehow feel much too familiar, like a telemarketer addressing me by my first name. Abbreviations can be annoying too, as if the speaker assumes I am as immersed in some topic as they are and know all the shorthand. IMHO.
Verbal magic tricks
I’m enamored of blends though, and I smile at the recollection of the first time I came across the word hangry in a tweet from a former student. To me blends are verbal magic tricks: words sawed in half and magically rejoined. I always think of publisher Bennett Cerf’s description of Groucho Marx as someone who looks at words “upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more.” Groucho would have loved the Urban Dictionary’s blend bananus, for the brown part at the end of a banana. When I finished my book on the language of public apology I toyed with using the word regretoric in the title, but wiser editorial heads prevailed. The best blends have a playful punning to them, in which the remnants of the old words encapsulate the new meaning perfectly (the worst blends are like Frankenstein’s monster, like schmeat, a finalist in 2013.). I’ll leave it to you to judge the blends in this year’s finalists: slacktivism (from slacker + activism), normcore (from normal + hardcore), and budtender (from bud + bartender).
To me, mere affixation is not as much fun as blending. New words formed by affixation make me think of new versions of old products, some sleek, colorful, and playful (unfriend and selfie), and others a bit too clumsy (hypermiling, the Word of the Year in 2008, or contactless). As a consumer, I rush out to buy some new words and leave others on the shelf.
2014’s Word of the Year vape, meaning to inhale the vapors from e-cigarettes, is a word that I don’t use much, not being a vaper myself. But many people seem to be vaping and the word has a good chance of success. It’s brisker than saying “smoke an e-cigarette” and reinforces the difference between vaping and smoking. Adapted from marijuana terminology, vape is a classic clipping from vaporize, with the added analogy of vapors/vapers and vape, to smoke/smokers and smoke. The word has made its way from High Times to the New York Times and NPR and is already being used not just as a verb but as a noun and adjective. There are “Got Vape?” bumper stickers, vape lounges, and vape pens. Vape is likely here to stay.
A version of this post first appeared on the OUP blog.