The Language Report 2007
This is the fifth annual report published by the Oxford University Press and edited by Susie Dent, best known in Britain through her contributions to the television programme Countdown. The subtitle of this year’s edition is English on the Move 2000–2007. As Susie Dent notes, 2007 has not been a vintage year for language change, but one in which the turbulence of the first years of the century has subsided into “a feeling more of limbo than of change”. This gives her a chance to recapitulate what has been happening to the English language in the past seven years.
Language, of course, is driven by events, exemplified by the rapid shift of tsunami from a technical term of seismologists and geographers into mainstream public use as a result of the disastrous events of the last days of 2004. So it’s no surprise that certain vocabularies have been augmented this century, including those of war (extraordinary rendition, enemy combatant, axis of evil), the online world (podcasting, folksonomy, Web 2.0, wiki, mashup, phishing) and politics (big conversation, progressive consensus). Climate change has been a potent force popularising terms and creating new ones (eco-savvy, carbon credit, offsetting, global dimming, green urbanism). Footprint has been reinterpreted in this context to refer to the extent of one’s ecological imprint on the planet and has been used so widely that Susie Dent nominates it as her Word of the Year.
A more subtle marker for the way our language is changing comes not so much from the words we use but from those we use them with. The Oxford English Corpus, a vast repository of 1.5 billion words from every conceivable source, has been in preparation since 2000 but only became available to researchers in 2006. Among other functions, it allows searches for collocations, words that frequently occur together. Susie Dent points out that in the Corpus, seven out of 10 instances of feed in this century’s writing are in phrases like RSS feed, so linked to information, not food; attachment in 2000 was most likely to be preceded by emotional, but by 2005 this had been overtaken by e-mail; in the past five years, surveillance has not only become much more common, but is most often linked to warrantless, covert and constant.
Indeed, we have become the most surveilled generation in history. One pointer is that verb — surveil was coined at the end of the nineteenth century as a back formation from surveillance. In the hundred years that followed, it remained a jargon term of the law-enforcement agencies, but this century it has already appeared three times more often than it did in the 1990s.
Through language you shall know your culture.
[Susie Dent, The Language Report 2007, published on 4 October 2007 by Oxford University Press; hardback, pp166; publisher’s price in the UK, £10.99; ISBN13: 978-0-19-923388-5, ISBN10: 0-19-923388-8.]