- Neologism: The Long View
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Number 28, 2007
- p. pp. 146-148
- View Citation
?: Neologism: The Long View John Simpson Oxford English Dictionary "have never been entirely happy with the concept of neolo- .gism. Of course it is important to know what is happening at the "cutting edge of language" — to see what influences are affecting the words we use — butjust how important are they in the long term? The OED takes a long view. If there is nothing else the OED does it is take a long view. And neologisms are the current wave of words to hit the shoreline. Soon enough they ebb back into the general run of vocabulary as another wave of neologisms takes over. My discontent is based partially on how dictionaries handle these newcomers. The obvious point is that some neologisms seem to be included simply to catch the public eye and sell more dictionaries. A brief survey of neologisms recently introduced into desk dictionaries shows that many are unique strings (often compounds) which have been picked up by computer routines. It is far more difficult to establish which shifts in the meaning of an "old" word are worth adding to a dictionary. This brings me on to the deeper problem. Language, as we know, is constantly in a state of flux. New words and meanings evolve, and older ones drift out of use. By concentrating on the new, we half-close our eyes to the old, and to what is happening in the bulk of the language . This was brought home to me most clearlywhen I was working on the Suppkment to the OED in the 70s and 80s. As we were working conscientiously through what in those days represented an enormous card file of evidence, we were able to identify modern shifts of meaning easily enough alongside outright neologisms, but this microscopic examination of the modern period left the bulk of the vocabulary, the core vocabulary of the language, largely untouched. Dictionaries:Journal oftheDictionary Sodety ofNorth America 28 (2007), 146-148 Neologism: The Long View1 47 I do not think it hit me fully until afterwards, when work started on the ground-up, comprehensive revision of the full OED. By concentrating on the new, we were privileging a subset of the vocabulary. Because change happens at all levels of the language, we were hanging new coat hangers without reassessing the wardrobe. Any new word or meaning affects the language around it: the word community is different once community health exists: maybe not much, but slightly, and the accumulation of these "slightlies" over the years is important. I became more and more unhappy about adding neologisms to dictionaries without reassessing the whole entry into which they were inserted, or without reassessing the network ofwords to which they were related. Now this, you will say, is an unreal objective. Practicality determines that dictionaries reveal what is new, and it is not practical to delve deeper into the network of language affected by a neologism. Maybe so, but the language suffers when we do not do this. I am putting the case too strongly. Neologisms are a window both on language change and continuity. Most aspects of neologisms are not actually new. We know that the vast majority of new words are based on components which already exist in the language, or in another language . Take the top four new entries on today's Word Spy web site: sharp number, lifestreaming, stroller envy, and mockbuster. What do they tell us about our current preoccupations? Sharp numbers are unrounded numbers , said to be important in marketing and selling (more eye-catching and believable than round numbers used in pricing) ; lifestreaming links in with blogging and the wish to record the details of your daily life as they occur; stroller envy takes us into parenting, and mockbuster into films and Hollywood. So the terms themselves highlight aspects of culture which are on the move in early 21st century life. You'd expect new words to do this. But where do the words come from? Sharp numberis simply a playful lexical extension of round number, applying the traditional contrast between the meanings 'sharp' and 'round(ed).' The expression round number itself has been around for at least three hundred years, and probably...