Saturday, November 16, 2013

Words are stupid, words are fun

As words fall in and out of fashion, new ones enter the language. But some, such as autonaut, chassimover and pupamotor, failed to reach the assembly line

English is a marvellous mashup of words. A few Celtic placenames. A stock of Old English words (day and night, black and white, food and drink, life and death, beer). More than twice as many words adopted from Norman French (marriage, parliament). Sometimes competing words from both: motherhood (Old English) and maternity (Norman French). Words of Greek derivation, like octopus. Words of Latin derivation, such as campus and ultimatum. Words from all over the place: Welsh (corgi), Irish (brogues), Arabic (algebra), German (hamster), Chinese (typhoon), Japanese (tycoon), American Indian (tobacco), Hawaian (ukulele), and many more.

Wherever they come from, words fall in and out of fashion. Within living memory gay has changed meaning completely, while bad and wicked changed, then changed back. Yesterday's slang is respectable today. In the 1950s and 60s, words that angered people who write to newspapers included job (the writer thought it vulgar, and preferred employment), breakdown ("horrible jargon"), and layby ("a combination of verb and preposition of rather obscure meaning"). The Manchester Guardian stylebook of 1950 banned such "slang" phrases as bank on, face up to, give away, sack (for "dismiss") and many others.

The expression "foregone conclusion" once meant an experience previously undergone, rather than making a decision without listening to the arguments. Many words we use today have a different meaning from 20, never mind 50, 100 or 200 years ago. Nice once meant silly (silly meant happy or blessed), then subtle, then pleasant. You could be sad with food and drink – it meant full to the brim, and was related to sated, satisfied and saturated. It then came to mean solid, so a reliable person could be called sad; in time, solid, heavy and dull came to mean sad in one of our modern uses. In recent years it subtly acquired an additional meaning, as in "how sad is that?"

Cicero invented the word qualitas because he felt Latin was inadequate to express a Greek philosophical concept. Now that's what I call nerdy. About 1,700 words are first recorded in Shakespeare (which does not necessarily mean he invented them), including barefaced, fancy-free, laughable and submerged. Milton is credited with beleaguered, impassive, jubilant and sensuous and the expressions "trip the light fantastic" and "all ears". Jung invented the word synchronicity as well as ambivalent, extrovert and introvert, while Freud came up with the word psychoanalysis, which is derived from the Greek for butterfly, psyche, who was also the Greek goddess of the soul.

Technology is a continual source of new words. The man who developed the wireless technology Bluetooth in 1996 was reading a historical novel about Harald Bluetooth, a 10th-century King of Denmark, at the time and appropriated his name. Spam, in the sense of unwanted emails, was named after the 1970 Monty Python cafe sketch in which Spam, in the sense of unwanted canned meat, was compulsory in every dish. Sometimes new words catch on, sometimes they don't, but you can always bet that someone, somewhere will object to them. I recall readers complaining about the Guardian's use of the new word blog (an abbreviation of another new word, weblog) but within a very short time it had become established. In the early 1960s, the AA sought suggestions from the public for a new word to describe drivers: submissions included autocarist, autonaut, chassimover, motorman, wheelist, and the bizarre acronym pupamotor ("person using power-assisted means of travelling on roads"). The idea was dropped. Whoever came up with laser ("light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation") in 1960 was more successful.

The writer AP Herbert devised a scoring system for new words, which would be given marks out of 10 on each of four criteria: is it readily understood, is it to be admired, is it sound etymologically, and is it actually required? The pass mark was 50% and television, for example, just scraped through (scoring respectively 10, 0, 0, and 10). One of my favourite recent words is bouncebackability, a neat alternative to "the ability to bounce back" attributed to the former football manager Iain Dowie. I fear it would fail the test.

This is an edited extract from For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection, by David Marsh, published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy for £8.99 (RRP £12.99) visit or call 0330 333 6846.

Marsh, David. 2013. “Words are stupid, words are fun”. The Guardian.. Posted: October 7, 2013. Available online:

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