The Virtue of Watching Your Language

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE is not unique in having a fluid, ever-changing character. Best described as a Low German dialect imbricated by Latin and Greek, via eleventh century Frenchified Norseman, English has changed a good amount since Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the following lines, somewhere about the year 1390:

Now, sire, and eft, sire, so bifel the cas,
That on a day this hende Nicholas
Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye,
Whil that her housbonde was at Oseneye,
As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.”

One could make the point even more starkly by quoting from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, composed no less than three centuries earlier and perhaps as many as six, but I cite Chaucer because his work is more recognizable as what we today know as English. Also, he was as influential as Shakespeare in shaping the written character of the language, introducing to literature thousands of words.

The evolving nature of the language is meticulously archived in an ongoing project called the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. On August 23, the latest entries were announced. When I was in university, in the 1980s, the twenty volume and 21,730 page OED was something to which I often referred and which I coveted. We now live in the digital age, and the three-hundred-thousand word masterwork of English resides on my laptop, always at the ready to provide detailed information — not only definitions of a word, but its etymology and literary occurrences across English’s printed history.

Returning to this matter of the digital age, one notices that the new Oxford dictionary entries are culled in large degree from Internet usage, and in particular the inventions of social media. While this is not a new trend, it is a recent one. Until only some decades ago, neologism —meaning the creation of new words — was a matter of determining and combining the requisite Latin or Greek roots. Thus, the word neologism is itself a fadging of two Greek terms: neo (“new”) and logos (“word”). That’s the old way. In the twenty-first century, the itch for a new phrase is scratched by a pop culture adaptation, often from the Internet. Here is the list of terms:

date night
dirty martini
douche
DW
ethical hacker
genius
group hug
guilty pleasure
hackathon
hat tip
hosepipe ban
inbox
lifecasting
lolz
micropig
mwahahaha
OH
photobomb
ridic
ripped
soul patch
tweeps
UX
vajazzle
video chat
vote someone/thing off the island
Wikipedian

It is not always the word itself that is novel, and in many cases it is the novelty of usage that warrants a discrete dictionary entry. When knowledge of Latin and Greek was common, one understood immediately the meaning of a neologism without having to look it up. A visual metaphor or concrete historical allusion was typically involved. For example, the meaning of the word panic was transparent to anyone who could infer the emotion of someone stumbling upon the god Pan while out for a walk. Likewise, the word candidate would invoke the bright togas worn by those Romans aspiring to office.

The above passage from Chaucer contains verbal cues for those who are in the know when it comes to things like the multiple nuances of queynte. The best authors, for example Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible, assumed readers who could summon to recollection a word’s pedigree. Many a literary joke depends upon the historical and contradictory usages of common English words such as “nice.” The careful and cunning deployment of an amply freighted word, undertaken by writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Henry James and Patrick White, is a gift to those who have consulted not only novels and poems, but the dictionary as well.

The neologisms of our day assume familiarity, not with the ancient past, but with the now. As always, the nature both of the language and the manner by which it changes tells us a good deal about the commerce (or as earlier generations would have put it, with no pun intended, intercourse) of its speakers. Our world is the virtual world, our lingua franca the patois of blogs, tweets, and SMSes. The only thing that’s new these days is how new it all is.

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