New Year, New Words

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Pearls Before Swine, November 11, 2018.

While I may be a prescriptivist (one who believes in following rules) in my approach to grammar and usage, a friend pointed out (correctly) that I stray over into the descriptivist camp (one who accepts the ever-changing nature of language and describes it as currently used) in my approach to new words. I love all words, be they old or new! Our language reflects our cultural identity as well as our values, so as these change, so do the words we use. While recent overly simplistic slogans such as “you do you,” “it’s a thing,” and “we got you” may elicit nausea, I do (sometimes grudgingly) welcome neologisms. 

Before we explore new words that have recently been added to dictionaries and conversations, we should celebrate 2018’s words of the year (or WOTY). These words are not necessarily new to the language, but “serve as a symbol of each year’s most meaningful events and lookup trends” (www.dictionary.com) and reflect the country’s mood and current zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. 

This year’s WOTYs primarily mirror our political situation. Dictionary.com’s WOTY for 2018 is misinformation. “We chose ‘mis-’ rather than ‘dis-’ information,” explained linguist Jane Solomon, “to serve as a ‘call to action’ to be vigilant in the battle against fake news, flat earthers, and anti-vaxxers, among other conduits.” The Oxford Dictionary’s WOTY—a leading dictionary that serves English speakers in both the U.K. and the U.S.—is toxic, an adjective defined as ‘poisonous’. “Our data shows that, along with a 45 percent rise in the number of times it has been looked up on oxforddictionaries.com, over the last year the word toxic has been used in an array of contexts,” including toxic chemical agents, toxic waste, and the toxic algae disaster in Florida. Merriam-Webster, the American counterpart to Oxford, chose the word justice as its 2018 WOTY. This was a top lookup throughout the year at www.merriam-webster.com, with the entry being consulted 74 percent more than in 2017. “The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year,” they explain: “racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice,” as well as the Dept. of Justice and Supreme Court Justice. Runners up at MW included nationalist and pansexual. Previous words of the year have included youthquake (Oxford 2017), fake news (the American Dialect Society 2017), and feminism (Merriam-Webster 2017). Just FYI, the American Dialect Society’s Word of the 20th Century was jazz. The ADS is “dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, and of other languages … influencing it or influenced by it” www.americandialect.org. Their 2018 WOTY will be announced on Jan. 4.

I wonder what the 2019 words of the year will be? Perhaps they will come from the well over 1,000 new words that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added this year. Explaining that “the addition of new words to a dictionary is a step in the continuous process of recording our ever-expanding language” and that “new words are added to the dictionary only when they have already been used by many people,” Merriam-Webster’s additions reflect the trends currently transforming the English language, from technology to the mainstreaming of urban slang. 

Many of the new words reflect modern advances in technology and how we access entertainment. Biohacking is defined as “biological experimentation (as by gene editing or the use of implants) done to improve the qualities or capabilities of living organisms, especially by individuals and groups outside of a traditional medical or scientific research environment.”

Examples include DIY biologists who have injected CRISPR (explained by Dirk Nies in the July 2017 Gazette)—into themselves, or He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who recently claimed to have used gene editing to create an HIV-resistant baby! Some people are trying to get rich quick by trading in cryptocurrency, a form of currency that only exists digitally and is based on blockchain, the technology at the heart of these virtual currencies, defined as “a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared within a large decentralized, publicly accessible network” (in case you’ve been wondering). A television series is considered bingeable if all its episodes are released at once via streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video, so they can be binge-watched in one sitting (you are not alone). Many of us rely on predictive text to speed up texting or typing, selecting the right word from those generated by our mobile device as likely to be entered next based on those that have already been entered. 

Many of these neologisms are credited to Gen Z, the name given to the generation born in the late 90s and early 2000s. So you might need this vocabulary to communicate with the young adults in your life—or to appreciate all the jokes on Saturday Night Live (SNL)! You may have heard an enlightened individual called woke, now defined as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially of racial or social justice).” The adjective lit —long used as slang for drunk or intoxicated—has recently taken on new life to mean “exciting” or, more broadly, “excellent.” Leslie Jones’ Olympics commentary, for example, was described as “lit” on Twitter. Hella—probably deriving from “hell of a”—means extremely, or a lot, as in “she’s hella scared” or “he’s in hella trouble.” 

Often this “teenspeak” simply involves shortening familiar words, such as cray cray for crazy or peeps for people—as in, “let me ask my peeps,” that is, group of like-minded friends. On a less flattering note, you might call a person (or his/her behavior) bougie—short for bourgeois—if s/he is too focused on respectability and material possessions, like the traditional middle class. You might think that it’s adorbs (adorable) that some rando (random acquaintance) likes zuke along with avo in his guac (zucchini in guacamole? Yuck!). But maybe he’ll sip a marg—short for margarita—with that guac!

They can also be portmanteau words, that is, two known words smushed together, such as hangry to describe the heightened anger felt when you are also hungry (a situation more common now that the majority of the population is on a diet). This emotion might be appeased by eating a plate of zoodles—long, thin strips of zucchini spiralized to resemble pasta—accompanied by a mocktail, or virgin cocktail made without the alcohol. A relationship between two men might be described as a bromance, or male friendship—a combination of “bro” for brother/ friend and “romance.” Techlash, a contender for Oxford’s WOTY, describes the widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon. The word portmanteau itself, now defined as a large trunk or suitcase that opens into two equal parts, began as a hybrid of the French words “porter” (to carry) and “manteau” (mantle or cloak). 

Now the quiz: if you overheard the following conversation, how much would you understand? “Let me lay down some real talk—my bae is on fleek, man! Besides being totally fly, she slays me and my squad every time she opens her mouth. Her brother, though, he’s rachet and really makes me salty. He’s a real douche, always throwin’ shade about me and my friends and flexin his fancy shoes.” If this sounds like nonsense to you, let me give you some help. A sweetheart or romantic partner may be referred to as your bae. This speaker is telling the truth (real talk) that his girlfriend is perfect in every way (on fleek). He finds her both attractive and cool (fly) as well as so intelligent and amusing in her speech that her every utterance impresses (slays) the speaker’s close friend group (squad). Her brother, on the other hand, is a jerk without class (rachet) who likes to disparage (throw shade on) the speaker, which makes the speaker angry and upset (salty). The brother also brags about his stuff, such as his shoes (flexin). To translate this kind of slang, consult the Urban Dictionary at www.urbandictionary.com. 

I just learned another relevant new word from our local meteorologist—one that hasn’t yet made it into any of these dictionaries (except as the Scottish word meaning “an unsuccessfully suppressed snort of laughter”). A lot of snirt, or dirty snow, has recently been seen around Charlottesville and Crozet—and there is probably more in our future! 

This sign at the Crozet Market targets the young consumer. Photo: Clover Carroll.

1 COMMENT

  1. Newsflash: “In its 29th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted for tender-age shelter (also tender-age facility or tender-age camp) as the Word of the Year for 2018. The term, which has been used in a euphemistic fashion for the government-run detention centers that have housed the children of asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexico border, was selected as best representing the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year” (www.americandialect.org).

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