Saturday, 6 June 2009

A thin crop of new words in the OED

Not merely are the new words being added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March this year a dull lot, they are also fairly useless; I cannot imagine that anyone needs them, or that they will often crop up in conversation, appear in print or even be written on walls. This is what the OED says about them:

bird-dogging n.
This North American colloquialism is interesting in its own right, the work of a dog trained to retrieve birds for hunters finding figurative expression in the sense 'determined searching or pursuit' as early as 1933, but a side note adds extra fascination. The 1972 quotation in this entry seems to point to a possible explanation of the hitherto somewhat obscure origins of the name of DOGGING as an exhibitionist pastime. However, caution must be urged: the gaps in time and distance between this 1972 U.S. use and the first 1986 use in Britain of dogging argue that perhaps nothing more than coincidence is at work.

achy-breaky adj.
Inspired by the title of the 1992 hit "Achy Breaky Heart", written by Don von Tress, and performed by Billy Ray Cyrus (now perhaps more famous as the father of Miley Cyrus, TV's Hannah Montana), this adjective has found life after the pop charts in a variety of contexts, possibly aided in this by a capacity to prompt either extremely positive or extremely negative reactions in the people who hear it; not unlike the song itself.

lifestyler n.
This word, first appearing in 1970 (the word "lifestyle" itself dates back only as far as 1915), forms rather a nice microcosm of these themes with regard to the later 20th century. The quotations at the first sense reflect a selection of (often unconventional) lifestyles characteristic of the time, and the increasing familiarity of these to an audience broader than the actual participants. The second sense focuses on a specific social phenomenon, urbanites moving to the countryside in search of a (frequently somewhat idealized) simpler life. This is as familiar in Australia and New Zealand as anywhere, but only there have such people earned the epithet lifestyler.

humanly adj.
This last item, as well as being a good example of an old word which is new to the dictionary, is interesting precisely it appears not to have caught on at all. It's logically formed, its sense ("characteristic of human nature") is easy to divine intuitively, and its two obvious parallels in the language, manly and womanly, both went on to flourish in the language; in fact humanly owes its origins to a translation of the Dutch equivalent of the former. The reasons for its failure relative to these words perhaps lie in the ready availability of human itself as an adjective by this time, denying a suffixed adjectival form the room it needed to grow.

The New Words Editor, in these notes on the new words in the OED's latest Update email, tries hard to make them stir the blood, but it's not easy. I mean, saying that a word 'has 'extra fascination' because it may be associated with improper activities but probably isn't, and that another is interesting because it has never caught on—that is to say, no-one wants to use it—smacks of desperation. (Actually 'humanly' has caught on, at least in one common phrase: 'not humanly possible'.)

Anyway, there is no need to defend the addition to the dictionary of uninteresting or unnecessary words. Many of the 60 million words already in it could be characterised thus, and many millions more are actually obsolete. But it's nice to have them there.

Gosh, wasn't that boring? I wish I'd never started writing it. The next few posts aren't up to much either. But please don't give up on Other Men's Flowers: there's an exciting one coming up on 14th, lavishly illustrated, all about sticking pins in people's ears.


ruth said...

The editor does seem to have missed the use 'not humanly possible' whose recent wide usage must have been the reason the word was suggested for inclusion, after all. Very odd.
How about all this nonsense about the 'millionth new word in English' then?
I look forward to a post on that non-event.

Tony said...

As you say, Ruth, this is nonsense. It was put out by a company in Texas called Global Language Monitor which claims to have a program which counts new words which appear in print, and says they have been added to the language when they have appeared 25,000 times. The story was picked up by dozens of news sources which were short of copy, including the Daily Mirror and the BBC.
Then, on 10th June, they announced that the one millionth was Web 2.0!
The president of this outfit, one Paul Payack, is evidently a deep thinker: he said the other day: "English is a peoples's language". As opposed to, say, Portuguese, which is used only by gazelles?

Gumby said...

It is with deep regret that I admit I know all of these words, if not use them in polite conversation.
I am not sure I would use them with actual people, though.
A gazelle, perhaps, and certainly a farm animal...

Tony said...

Gumby, how nice to hear from you again! I am immensely impressed by the breadth of your vocabulary, even if it does lean heavily towards North American coinages. But I bet you know some interesting words as well.