Get over it: English is a living language

Recently, a press release from the Plain English Foundation crossed my desk at work and immediately snagged my attention. It was titled “Fugitive emissions” tops the list of 2011’s worst words and highlighted such iniquities as Nicole Kidman’s “gestational carrier” and the obfuscation “negative good” in relation to the effects of teeth whitening.

Now, I would argue these are in fact phrases, rather than words, but it’s an interesting and entertaining read, so I recommend clicking through and reading the above article.

It’s also completely indicative of one of the most fascinating things about the English language: its capacity to evolve.

In the case of PR-spun euphemisms like “fugitive emissions” (ammonia gas leaks), “gestational carrier” (surrogate mother) and “negative good” (er..?) the benefit to society is debatable; but there are plenty of fabulous new words in common use that we embrace without blinking. I refer of course to words such as “google” (verb), “blog” (verb, noun) and “tweet” (verb, noun) . . . and the list goes on. And will continue to go on for eternity.

The thing that gets my goat, however, is the bastardization of words. Every time a new bastardization makes it into the Oxford dictionary a small part of me dies inside. My pet hates are “orientated” (instead of “oriented”), “obligated” (instead of “obliged”) and “learnings” (*shudder*). There’s this one industry term I hate as well — “connectorized”. What’s wrong with “connected”, I ask you?

You might be interested in an online resource/community called Wordnik, which is attempting to log all the words and different meanings of English words coined by whomever and wherever along the way. Wordnik believes that words mean what we want them to mean — that if people want to use “cute” to mean something other than its original meaning (lovable, but ugly), then good luck to them!

Of course, the definition of “cute” changed decades ago, so we don’t bat an eyelid. But does that mean we should embrace a change in meaning for all words, should enough people start using them? The word “wicked” comes to mind, which to modern youth means something other than “terribly evil”.

So we have bastardized words, words with changed meanings, and completely new words, all simmering in the cauldron that is the English language — which already has origins in multiple languages. (Interesting factoid: apparently Shakespeare coined a staggering number of new words; there’s even some speculation he coined the word “bubble” for Macbeth, being the first to bring it into common use.)

Now, I’m really interested to hear what others think on this. What’s your feeling about the shifting sands of the English language? Do you hate bastardizations as much as I do? Should I just get over it and roll with the punches? What are your favourite new words?

 

39 comments

  1. I usually wince when I hear a new created word by young people for the first time. But then it grows on me as I hear them using it in new innovative ways and I appreciate their creativity. Misuse of the language though, bugs me. Bastardization of current words? Negative bad.

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    1. The current word created by youth seems to be “chillaxed” — which I confess I rather like and even have been known to use 🙂

      Re misuse of language – this opens up another entire debate. What of “compared with” vs “compared to” for example…?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always been in the “words believe what people believe them to” camp myself. Can’t say I particularly like “negative good”, though. Maybe it’d make a bit more sense in context, but it seems overly complex and self-contradictory.

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    1. Well, it’s good to have a non-pedant to join the discussion 🙂

      I think “negative good” is supposed to mean something that is initially thought to be good, and is in fact good in one context, but which has nasty side-effects…

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  3. I don’t really mind new words ’cause I make up silly ones all the time. That being said, one word that has recently been driving me crazy is the word ‘sick’. Apparently, it’s now used to mean something is awesome.

    Not diggin’ that one at all.

    I like your post because it’s true ~ English is a living language, as I’m sure they all are.

    Interesting!
    ~Kim

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    1. Yeah “sick” is the more recent equivalent to “wicked” I believe…

      I find myself coining words all the time. I caught myself writing “subbed” (submitted) and “nommed” (nominated) on facebook this morning… then I deleted and retyped – lol (and there’s another one!)

      It would be nice to have some insight from the speaker of another language, wouldn’t it! Words like “google” are universal and transcend a specific language. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come. (Suddenly thinking of Firefly…)

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      1. Well here I am. Lol. I’m Swedish and that’s my first language.

        Chillaxed is a really nice word.

        In Swedish we have “googla” which is “google” (verb) but with a Swedish verb ending. We also have words for twittering and such, but usually with Swedish verb endings.

        Swedish have taken in some English words such as “team building” and “email”, which some want to change to Swedish equivalent ones. “Email” would become “epost”. Since “mail” is “post” in Swedish.

        English have picked up some Swedish words of late. “Ombudsman”, “smorgasbord”. Only “smorgasbord” should really be spelled “smörgåsbord”. 😉

        Was there anything special that you were interested in knowing from a non-native speaker of English?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There is no WAY that we will spell smorgasbord with anything over the letters in English 🙂 – we were SO lazy when our language evolved that we didn’t bother putting the magic “e” over the vowel it was changing as the Germans did (which then evolved into the umlauts ö ü ä that we all know), we just shoved the e to the end of the word.

          So mat becomes mate. The germans would have changed that spelling to mät.

          I was fascinated to learn that both languages did the same thing but in different ways. I quite like the fact we have NO accents at all, makes typing in today’s world way easier!!

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      2. Felicia – how fabulous of you to stop by and comment! You’ve exactly answered my question – which was how words like google etc get incorporated into languages other than English.

        Do you guys make up or shorten words as well? (as in my “nommed” for nominated or “subbed” for submitted…)

        Thanks for your insight!

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        1. yeah it is really funny to hear the French colleagues around me say “je l’ai googlé”

          Not only have they conjugated it, but the word now was an accent on it because it’s in the past!! excellent!

          I don’t contract words like you do, but I do notice the evolution through my kids, especially for the three letter abbreviations.

          ikr – I know, right!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Phillip – thanks for stopping by and picking up this discussion. I still find it all fascinating. Abbreviations like ikr (so glad you defined that) and idk are another thing to add into the mix. How long until they’re in the Oxford dictionary, I wonder?

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  4. I often wonder, if I didn’t have 4 children carrying modern bastardized words into my word-world, would I even understand the English language? Some of these Frankenstein words are easy enough to figure out, but others are just ridiculous and I need a cheat-sheet.

    I do admit to messing around at times with language, and inventing a word here and there, but the requirement with my made-up words is that they don’t mince meaning. Aka, Not a negative good on the list.

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  5. Came across “operationalisability” in a Lean Manufacturing text at work the other day. Why use a few words when with a little imagination you can find enough suffixes to make it work? Still can’t remeber what it means.

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  6. I don’t mind new words … especially fun, silly words. But, it does get frustrating teaching English to my children. “Well, yes, that’s a word NOW. But five years ago it wasn’t a word. The word they really meant to say was such-and-such and someone famous messed it up and the messed up word is now a word…No, dear, it doesn’t make any sense. Sorry.” Ugh! No wonder they spend half their grammar and spelling lessons confused! LOL!!

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  7. Hi Ellen,

    I enjoyed your musings on language . Reading your list of Orwellian phrases like “gestational carrier” or your examples of corporate speak like “connectorized” makes me shudder too. Yet I admire writing–good writing–that plays with language and stretches its boundaries, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty.” The difference between the two has to do with intention, I think. If a writer respects and draws from the exuberant wealth of the English language and then opts to push at its boundaries, I think it can be amazing. But if someone is just too damn lazy, or wants to use language as a curtain to conceal reality, as in “gestational carrier,” I think it’s depressing. Either way, I like that you’re writing about it and got us thinking about it. I love the image of the “shifting sands.”

    Cheers,
    Rebecca

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    1. That’s a really good point, Rebecca. Perhaps it comes under the philosophy that it’s OK to break a rule, so long as you know and understand the rule first. Or course it helps to have major talent as well 🙂

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  8. I have a particular “negative fondness” for corporate – speak. Words like “planful,” managers who decide to “incent” their employees (WTF?) and the almost constant misuse of the word “impact.”
    On the other hand, there are a load of good words getting a much needed makeover (the ironic “sweet” for example) and new words being used that I wholeheartedly embrace.
    So…I guess its a mixed bag…or, a “motley reticule.”

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  9. Fascinating post. There is a really good book called The Story of English that I recommend you read if you haven’t already.

    I love that language evolves, but I also love the structure of English and I think its rules contribute to expression. Some people (e.e. cummings, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, etc.) have gotten away with creating beauty from breaking those rules, but they are a rare exception. Text-speak in particular makes me wince, as does the inability to differentiate between there/their/they’re or you’re/your.

    So many words in the English language have been born from other tongues, and I love knowing that the shaping of a language is a communal experience. 🙂

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    1. I think I have The Story of English somewhere, although I haven’t read it. I love that stuff too. Just wish it would transfer by osmosis from the bookshelf to my head!

      The multiple origins of English are what makes it so interesting.

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  10. Funniest thing at work the other day – I was scribing for a meeting on the whiteboard and we had a “flange leak on a heat exchanger” (gas coming out of the pipe) – I was asked to change it to fugitive emission, no-one could understand what I found so funny….

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  11. Funny. I just had two exposures to the word “chillaxed” within thirty minutes from two different sources. I don’t think I have ever heard it before. Loved this post, Ellen.

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  12. I wince at some new words and enjoy others. Chillax is fun; orientated isn’t. I think I enjoy the creativity of new words in informal speech but don’t like it when they get into formal situations. Bad grammar is the worst and gets my teeth grinding. For example, “He did that perfect” or “There is four people coming…” – and everyone seems to do that. I am also in awe that numbers are being entered into words in the English dictionary. I just read the millionth word entry in 2009 was ‘Web 2.0’ – not looking forward to short-hand text words entering the fold at all. But, my favourite word I learned this week is “phubbing”. Essentially, phone snubbing… the unsocial act of letting your cell phone interrupt, or take precedence over, the people in front of you. Are you a phubber? I just got phubbed! Stop phubbing me! But that’s a new word created for a new situation. I’m with you… I am resisting words that are replacing words that already exist!
    I have thoroughly enjoyed this post and what others have to say, too. Thanks, Ellen.

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  13. Well.. I love English mainly because of word formation. Creating new words makes it evolve so I can’t see anything bad about it. I hate though when people change old words’ spelling or meaning and make me feel dump cause I don’t get what they’re talking about. About my favourite newcomers: definitely names of selfies:D like brelfies (breastfeeding selfie) or uglies or felfies (farmer selfies) :D:D

    Liked by 1 person

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