Thursday, August 13, 2015

English Language Grows Beyond Recognition

I am thoroughly enjoying a copy of There’s A Word For It, a book about the explosion of the English language in America over the past century.  It’s written by Sol Steinmetz, a lexicographer who has penned three dozen dictionaries and reference books, including Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning.  He lives in my town, New Rochelle, New York.

The English language has grown by leaps and bounds.  For instance, Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1828 included around 75,000 entries.  In 1961, an updated version had 450,000 words and around 2010, the Oxford English Dictionary claimed 616,500 word forms.  From 1700 to 1899, over 93,000 words were added.  A dictionary in 1755 had just 50,000 words.

So why are there so many words?  Technology, global communications, immigrants, and the pace of speech have all been major factors.  Steinmetz explains it this way in his book:

“Although dictionaries are limited in their coverage, they do reflect the steady growth of our vocabulary.  This growth has been due largely to the great expansion of the communications media during the last century and is itself a reflection of that expansion. Radio and television, the Internet, artificial satellites (there are now over twenty-four hundred orbiting the earth), the international press, and the current wireless smartphones – all communicate to the world instantly anything new, including every new coined word.  And newly minted coinages proliferate (think weblog, weblogger, blogger, blog, blogging, bloggerati, blogosphere, blogospheric, blogistics), thanks to writers and speakers seeking new forms of expression and feeling free to make up words, to the extent that the line between the usage labels formal, informal, and slang is steadily blurring.”

Where did the new words and meanings of the last century come from?  He says: "Most were native coinages, words created by well-established processes like back-formation (babysit from babysitter), clipping or shortening (condo from condominium, nuke from nuclear), contraction (helluva from hell of a), blending (smog from smoke and fog), derivation (televiewer, telecast, telegenic), and compounding (barfly, busywork).  A considerable percentage were borrowings from foreign languages (garage, limousine, Lebensraum, daiquiri).

“Before 1900 communication was slow and limited, and information could only be obtained by word of mouth, letter writing, and reading newspapers and books.  There was no radio, and the telephone as in its infancy, as was the phonograph.  All the modern means of communicating were still to come: motion pictures, television, computers, the Internet, cell phones.  The electronic revolution made the transmission and popularization of new words inevitable.

“The moment a new idea, concept, thought, or object is invented, someone in America is impelled to coin a word for it.  Most of such coinages have a short life span, but many survive and attain longevity.  Some words may go out of fashion but do not disappear from the language; they continue to exist as dated, dialectal, archaic, or obsolete words and are recorded as such in standard dictionaries.  In short, the English language in America keeps growing and growing, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and for everything new in American English THERE’S A WORD FOR IT.”

Though his book was published in 2010 by Harmony Books, it’s new to me.  I discovered it on a recent visit to what I think is the greatest bookstore in America – Strand’s.  The multi-floored store by Union Square in Manhattan brags of shelving 18 miles worth of books: new, used, and rare.

Steinmetz's book features each of the last 12 decades, delivering commentary on how each decade’s inventions, news of the day, and cultural patterns influenced the adoption of new words.  He offers dozens of new words that were embraced each year. Here’s a sampling:

1900 antidisestablishmentarianism
1901 mannequin
1902 trivia
1903 pussy-foot
1904 spotlight
1905 dramedy
1906 airplane
1907 chemotherapy
1908 refinance
1909 addict
1910 avant-garde
1911 outdoorsy
1912 sexy
1913 amnesiac
1914 leatherneck
1915 futuristic
1916 environmentalist
1917 catwalk
1918 defeatist
1919 press officer
1920 adventurist
1921 sadomasochistic
1922 beauty queen
1923 mass media
1924 wisecrack
1925 compartmentalize
1926 downturn
1927 racist
1928 eroticist
1929 nudist
1930 crooner
1931 infantilize
1932 unelectable
1933 proactive
1934 antioxidant
1935 mercy killing
1936 prerecorded
1937 marriage counseling
1938 metascience
1939 accessorize
1940 misallocation
1941 pedophile
1942 car pool
1943 acronym
1944 superpower
1945 videogenic
1946 fast-talk
1947 upbeat
1948 viral
1949 aromatherapy
1950 elitism
1951 vacuum-pack
1952 moonwalk
1953 bleep
1954 supplement
1955 zinger
1956 psychotropic
1957 whiplash
1958 phase-out
1959 reusable
1960 bionics
1961 doomsayer
1962 spacewoman
1963 decriminalize
1964 skank
1965 peacenik
1966 head case
1967 multiscreen
1968 novella
1969 weaponization
1970 adversarial
1971 pro-life
1972 high-tech
1973 factoid
1974 trifecta
1975 multiculturalism
1976 wuss
1977 palimony
1978 bar-hopping
1979 bustler
1980 gridlock
1981 wannabe
1982 cyberspace
1983 transgendered
1984 cellphone
1985 double-click
1986 infoholic
1987 media scape
1988 channel surfer
1989 beat-down
1990 micro-lending
1991 bitch-slap
1992 nannycam
1993 weblog
1994 starter marriage
1995 webcam
1996 scratchiti
1997 shockumentary
1998 Google
1999 day trader
2000 bling
2001 texting
2002 racial profiling
2003 pescetarian
2004 smartphone
2005 puggle
2006 unibrow
2007 truther
2008 game-changer
2009 staycation

Will many of the words survive?  

The author notes that we should follow a procedure outlined in a book called Predicting News Words – The Secrets of Their Success, written by Allan Metcalf, a professor who served as the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.  Metcalf says you can rate new words by what he calls the FUDGE factor: Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of uses and situations, Generation of other forms and meanings, Endurance of the concept.

“I would suggest waiting a century before pronouncing a word dead,” says Steinmetz, “however moribund it may seem at times.  Words, like humans, may fall into a comatose or vegetative state, but often speakers or writers with a sense of history will breathe new life into seemingly dead words.”

It is hard to believe how long some modern-sounding words have been around, such as guestimate (1936), and joyride (1908).  But it’s also amazing how some words go out of fashion fairly quickly.  There’s no doubt our language is always expanding and growing, with plenty of words and terms coming out of the Big Bang of technology.  

If you want to know which words have transformed our language landscape in the past 110 years, check out There’s A Word For It.


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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