English Language lecturer Jenny Lewin-Jones tells us how our lives shape the way we speak.
Language never stands still. We need new words to describe and reflect changes in the way we live, whether it’s to do with new technologies, evolving kinds of relationships or different fashions.
One way to create a new word is to make a blend of two existing words. These are sometimes called ‘portmanteau’ words, joining two halves together. This comes from an old-fashioned kind of suitcase in two compartments called a ‘portmanteau’ (it’s a word English borrowed from French). The writer Lewis Carroll used the term in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (the sequel to ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’). He was very fond of making up portmanteaus such as slithy (lithe + slimy) and chortle (chuckle + snort).
It’s a great way to combine two ideas into one word. You get a lot of these words for new creations in clothing and food, like jeggings = jeans + leggings, and cronut = croissant + donut. The new words reflect the creativity that goes into experimenting with new clothing or food.
Portmanteau words have been around for a long time – the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the earliest written evidence of words like brunch (1895) and motel (1925). But let’s have a look at five words we think of as 21st century creations. They show something about the way we live now.
Glamping is ‘glamorous camping’ for people who don’t want to give up their comforts while still enjoying some outdoors experience. But is it really camping if you’re staying in a luxury hideaway with everything provided for you? Glamping can be linked to wanting a ‘staycation’, or holidaying somewhere close to home, yet enjoying something that feels like a treat.
Sharenting is ‘sharing parenting’. But what does it mean? There are divided opinions on this: is it about parents sharing the responsibility of looking after their children, or parents showing off their children’s achievements on social media? That’s one of the fascinating things about new words: a dominant meaning can take a while to become established.
Henflation is nothing to do with large eggs. It’s ‘hen-night inflation’ - the way that hen nights have morphed from being a night out on the town for a bride-to-be and her mates into a luxury (and very expensive) weekend away in a far-flung place.
Flexitarians are flexible vegetarians. They mostly eat meat-free but perhaps enjoy the occasional burger or bacon sarnie. This could be the way forward for everyone to cut back on meat consumption without the guilt if they have the odd lapse.
Plogging is the newest of the words on our list. It’s a blend of ‘jogging’ and ‘plocka’ (Swedish for ‘pick’). It’s when you go jogging and pick up litter. This trend began in Sweden in 2016 and quickly spread to other countries. What’s not to like? You can get fit and enjoy the fresh air, while improving the local environment.
One sign that a new word is here to stay is when it gets entered into a dictionary. Dictionaries today are ‘descriptive’, describing how people use languages, rather than setting down rules. The big dictionaries have teams of experts called ‘lexicographers’ who use huge databases of real language in use, called ‘corpora’, to track words. A word won’t be entered into the dictionary until there’s plenty of evidence that it’s widely used.
So who creates new words in the first place? There’s a long tradition of writers creating words, including gremlin (Roald Dahl), cyberspace (William Gibson), freelance (Walter Scott), bedazzled (William Shakespeare). Other words start out as brand names and gradually become the everyday word for a particular item, like sellotape, thermos flask, bubble wrap, onesie, jacuzzi and velcro.
Some words come from the name of the person that invented something or popularized it. This can overlap with a brand name. When you call a ballpoint pen a biro, you’re saying the name of a brand, which itself came from the name of the inventor, Hungarian László Bíró.
One of the great things about words is that they can start out as jokes among a particular group of people and then take off more widely. Social media is an effective way for words to be shared and spread. Selfie supposedly started life on an internet forum in 2002, but it was about a decade later that it really took off and then became Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2013. It’s hard to remember how recent selfie actually is.
To make a new word, you can take the initial letters of the words in a phrase to form a new word. Sometimes each letter is sounded out and sometimes it’s pronounced as a new word (called an ‘acronym’), and the original words may be forgotten. Gif started out as ‘graphics interchange format’, and a phone’s sim card is a ‘subscriber identification module’ card.
New words and social & technological change is one of the fascinating areas we look at on our English Language joint honours courses at the University of Worcester. Follow Jenny Lewin-Jones on Twitter @JennyLewinJones