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Fanboys and Overdogs

Publishers have made various attempts at providing a regular update concerning the state of the English language, including The Oxford Dictionary of New Words, which ran to a sequel in 1996 that I contributed to, and John Ayto’s The Longman Register of New Words, editions of which appeared in 1989 and 1990.

The cover of Fanboys and Overdogs

This time around, it seems that Oxford University Press and editor Susie Dent may have succeeded in creating a format that builds its audience from year to year. This is the third annual volume — the first, in 2003, was just called The Language Report, but last year’s had the main title Larpers and Shroomers. Both are still in print, if you want to catch up with them. This edition is a meaty little volume, one of whose ambitions is to give a picture of changes to our vocabulary over the past year or so, as well as illuminating language change over a greater span.

Chapters include discussions of words that have recently burst into the limelight (gene editing, botnet, manbag, bluesnarfing, hotsaucing, happy slapping), on changing slang, on the language of politics (including dog-whistle politics, imported to Britain from Australia during this year’s election), and on new musical genres such as crunk. Other chapters investigate the stories behind words associated with recent events, such as morganatic, chav, road map, peace process, saviour sibling, human shield, and tsunami, which was, before the disaster of last Christmas, a word mostly known by geographers and earthquake experts. Other chapters range over language change in various ways, such as exaggeration and euphemism, images and allusions, how the words of 2005 compare with those of a century ago, the way that usage is changing, and the phenomenon of British-specific terms (like went missing and full marks) that are finding a place in the USA.

Another chapter takes as its starting point the 250th anniversary this year of the publication of Johnson’s dictionary, showing how some of his words have changed meaning in the years since (such as high-flyer, which to Dr Johnson meant a person who “carries his opinion to extravagance”, and autopsy, which was defined in 1755 as “ocular demonstration; seeing a thing one’s self”, which was the sense in Latin and Greek of the root it came from).

The book poses and answers the question of where new words come from, pointing out that only about 1% of newly reported words are actually freshly minted. The rest are revivals, new senses of older words, terms borrowed from other languages, blends or compounds of words already known, or words that have shifted their function from noun to verb, or verb to adjective.


[Susie Dent, Fanboys and Overdogs: The Language Report, published by Oxford University Press on 6 October 2005; hardback, pp163; ISBN 0192806769; publisher’s UK price £10.99.]

Page created 22 Oct. 2005

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