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New Words, Irregardless of Taste

Posted on Monday, September 29, 2014 at 9:45 PM

Today's fast-paced personal communication is quickening the process of language evolution.

By William Dunkerley

As editors, we use dictionaries and style guides to create a consistent fabric for the varied content we produce. The goal of achieving consistency over time is now being challenged, however, as changes in language and usage are occurring at an accelerated pace.

A recent announcement by OxfordDictionaries.com brings that into focus. It introduces a host of new words such as:

--acquihire: an act or instance of buying out a company primarily for the skills and expertise of its staff, rather than for the products or services it supplies.

--clickbait: content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular Web page.

--cotch: spending time relaxing.

--doncha: don't you.

--listicle: an article on the Internet presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list.

--mansplain: explaining something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing:

--subtweet: a Twitter post that refers to a particular user without directly mentioning them, typically as a form of furtive mockery or criticism.

Are you ready to permit usage of these and similar words in your publication? Or do your instincts tell you to dismiss them as faddish?

Slow Adoption of New Usage

Dictionaries and style guides have traditionally taken their time incorporating evolutionary changes. For instance, the term "e-mail" first appeared in the 1980s as an abbreviation for "electronic mail." Now it's considered a word by itself, and in most usage the hyphen has been dropped. A Google search brought 2.79 billion results for "email" and only 233 million for the hyphenated version.

The word "website" has had a similar evolution. At first "Web site" was widely accepted as the correct style. The Google Ngram Viewer shows that the popularity of that rendering began to decline around 2001. At about the same time, the single-word uncapitalized version, website, began its ascent. However, it wasn't until April 16, 2010, that the Associated Press online stylebook abandoned "Web site" in favor of "website."

Is that quick enough in the context of today's language milieu? Modern people now have more communication options than were available earlier: ever-ready voice communications via mobile phones, texting, social media, email. These technologies can only quicken the pace of change in usage and in the adoption of new words.

Writing in Editors Only for the September 1989 issue, Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Frederick Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current [emphasis supplied] when the dictionary is published."

Resistance to Change

Despite the inevitability of language evolution, there are some who ardently resist it and consider new changes in poor taste. At one time there was an organization called The Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature. It once boasted a membership of almost 2,000. But when I just tried to visit its website, I found a broken link.

In some countries, national governments have even gotten into the language protection act. Ukraine has been in the news lately for its tussle over the use of Russian as an official language in some regions. The revolutionary government that took charge in February quickly tried to cancel the extant permissive law. Legislators were afraid that Russian might overtake the use of Ukrainian in what is essentially a de facto bilingual country. Even though that legislative change was never signed into law, the attempted action may actually have provoked residents of Crimea, a largely Russian-speaking area, to seek or accede to reintegration with Russia, from whence the region had come during the 1950s.

In the 1990s France enacted legislation to ban the influx of foreign words such as "cheeseburger," "cash flow," "marketing," "software" and "air bag." But the law was declared unconstitutional. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Constitutional Council ruled that "the government had no right to impose official French translations of foreign words on private citizens, companies, and the media."

Just think, if the US had successfully enacted a similar law, we might have to call a crepe a thin pancake. And I don't know what we'd do with the word mayonnaise.

Nonsensical Words

I deliberately included the word irregardless in the title of this article to illustrate a possible downside to following the crowd when it comes to everyday language usage. Irregardless (1.57 million Google search results) is apparently a product of confusing the words regardless and irrespective. Those words got mashed together to form irregardless. "Regardless" means "despite everything." The prefix "ir" generally serves to negate what follows. Irresistible, irresponsible, and irreverent are examples. So the word irregardless is literally nonsensical.

Doncha think there's something fundamentally wrong with following the crowd and using a nonsensical word like irregardless?

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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