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New Words in the News

You will appreciate that I spend much of my time reading the newspapers in order to turn up neologisms and other interesting terms. So it was disconcerting to find myself the source of news, being quoted in the Guardian newspaper on the subject of new words.

The trigger was the publication in the Times of a full-page list of 102 words and phrases compiled by Collins dictionaries, each one chosen to exemplify a year in the past century and a bit. The fact that Rupert Murdoch owns both Collins and the Times no doubt accounts for the amount of space given this strange exercise, with its attendant competition.

Most words are coined for specialist purposes and only slowly gain wider public acceptance. Rarely is it possible to pinpoint exactly when a word can be said to have established itself, let alone when — if ever — it becomes an expression of the mood of the times. Some examples from the Collins/Times list shows how difficult such an exercise is, and that how easy it is, even when viewed with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, for us to get it wrong.

The list gives radar as its choice for 1941, I assume because the first recorded public usage occurred in that year (in the New York Times); but the word had been used in specialist areas earlier, and it didn’t become widely known in Britain for a couple of years, because the technology was a matter of national security. For the following year, 1942, they chose robotics, why I cannot imagine, for Isaac Asimov had coined the word and his famous Three Laws of Robotics the year previously, the term was used at first purely in a science-fiction context, and only gradually broke out into public consciousness as a result of the development of cybernetics in the fifties. And would you select television as the word for 1926? Certainly it was the year in which John Logie Baird began to make an impact with his experiments (though the word had first appeared in the Scientific American as far back as 1907), but the first public television service in Britain started only in 1936, closed again in 1939 and television only hit broad public consciousness in this country after the Second World War. There are many other similar examples in the list.

Also, words and phrases rarely appear out of nothing, newly minted and ready for use. They evolve. Take Gulf War syndrome for example: it is now the standard term for the debilitating set of symptoms believed to have been triggered by a cocktail of drug treatments and organo-phosphate pesticides, ironically given to soldiers to protect them during the war in the desert. But the term only appeared in that form in 1994, being preceded by others such as Desert Storm syndrome and desert fever. What year would you apply the phrase to: 1992, when the war occurred but the affliction was unknown, 1995, when the term finally settled down to its present form and public controversy was at its highest, or somewhere in between?

Some of the words in the Collins list seem more reasonable, assuming you think the exercise worthwhile: they pick glasnost for 1985, which is a rare example of a word appearing out of the lexicographic wide blue yonder and taking its place in the language almost immediately. The selection for 1993 is the phrase information superhighway, which certainly was a buzz phrase of that time, and one which did sum up the early period of Internet fever (though coined in the late eighties), but it is also one which has already gone out of fashion and which is unlikely to survive. For 1996 they choose alcopop, which is fine from a British viewpoint, but not from that of (say) Australia, where it was in use earlier.

Here, for your delectation and as a source of creative debate, are Collins’ selections for the past twenty years (I won’t bore you with the complete list):

1978 test-tube baby; 1979 Rubik cube; 1980 Solidarity; 1981 SDP (ie, the then new and now defunct British Social Democratic Party); 1982 CD; 1983 Aids; 1984 yuppie; 1985 glasnost; 1986 Mexican wave; 1987 PEP (Personal Equity Plan, a type of tax-free savings); 1988 acid house; 1989 Velvet revolution; 1990 crop circle; 1991 ethnic cleansing; 1992 clone; 1993 information superhighway; 1994 National Lottery; 1995 road rage; 1996 alcopop; 1997 Blairite.

and, in contrast, a similar list produced for the Guardian by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, which indicates that there are frequently many examples of words which could be used to exemplify a given year and that selecting just one is a matter of personal judgement:

1978 BMX, Teletext; 1979 space invaders; 1980 Reaganomics; 1981 Walkman; 1982 Exocet; 1983 Star Wars; 1984 Aids; 1985 yuppie; 1986 perestroika; 1987 free market, Black Monday; 1988 lager lout; 1989 poll tax; 1990 global warming; 1991 citizen’s charter; 1992 grunge, annus horribilis; 1993 Whitewater, bobbit; 1994 World Wide Web; 1995 Britpop; 1996 ecowarrior, scratchcard; 1997 New Labour.

The Times’ competition asked readers to nominate a word of the century. I suggested dumbing-down, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, you understand, since my more serious choice would have been microchip. But the word that got the most votes was television, with technology next in line.

Collins have more recently been asking for nominations for a word of the year for 1998. What would be your choice?

Page created 8 Nov. 1997
Last updated 27 Dec. 1998

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Last modified: 27 December 1998.