Friday 27 April 2018

From froyo to vaticinate: Dictionary makers get lost in profusion

The rise of social media has thrown up a slew of technobabble, writes Damian Corless

Endangered: Stephen Fry attempted to get the word ‘fusby’ back into everyday use
Endangered: Stephen Fry attempted to get the word ‘fusby’ back into everyday use

'Sriracha," "froyo",­"bibimbap", "vaticinate". Be honest, have you ever used any of these "words" in daily conversation. Will you ever? Chances are no, but you never know. (Actually, no, you won't.) These are just some of the 250 or so new words added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in the ever quickening race to keep up with the way we word.

One of the big ideas of our so-called Great Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, was to liberate us from our native Gaelic language. He insisted, with some justification, that speaking Irish was holding us back from taking our place at the top table of international discourse. Even then, almost two centuries ago, English was the magical mongrel tongue of the world. It had the amazing power to absorb and employ words and ideas from other cultures like nothing else on earth.

Today, in 2017, that power to absorb has become a ball of confusion for those hoping to control our talk. In the race to take in and legitimise new words, the compilers of our dictionaries find themselves overwhelmed with too much information.

Chambers, Collins, Websters and the Oxford English Dictionary have all published recent updates, and the new definitions of cougar (mature woman) and haircut (money snip) are amongst the several hundred new words included between them.

To vaticinate is to prophesy, on the off-chance you're ever thinking of dropping it in to a pub chat.

The new world of social media gives us a slew of technobabble terms, plus others which have entered the lingo such as "paywall" and "defriend".

The dictionaries feature dubious new eco-related terms that are rarely, if ever, heard in everyday conversation. Included are "green collar worker" (one who serves the environment), "locavore" (one who only eats locally produced food) and "freegan" (an alt-hippy who wears second-hand clothes to stand out from the crowd).

Another term spawned by this ongoing recession is "boomerang child", which is a young adult who returns to the family home, usually for financial reasons, possibly to "helicopter parents" who hover over said sad offspring.

It's a measure of how far the dictionary people will go to keep themselves in business that nine years ago, in a clever publicity ploy, Collins issued a list of 24 archaic words it planned to remove from its printed dictionary unless the words showed up at least six times in the publisher's corpus, a database recording the frequency of words in print, broadcast and online media.

Collins signed up celebrities to adopt one of the endangered words each, under threat of use it or lose it. Stephen Fry obligingly chose "fusby", meaning short, stout or squat. Chat-show host Christine Bleakley championed "oppugnant", meaning antagonistic or contrary, while her co-presenter Adrian Chiles saved "embrangle", meaning to confuse.

A decade on, the English language keeps expanding, but pocket dictionaries still have to fit in pockets, and Collins has jettisoned a number of words in recent years on the grounds that they've fallen out of use. Some of those thrown overboard are genuinely obsolete, such as "deliciate" (to delight oneself; indulge in feasting), "brabble" (to argue over trifles) and "younker" (a youngster).

The exclusion of two particular words seemed harsh, however, as many people will be familiar with "charabanc" (a carriage with wooden benches) and "aerodrome" (what else but an aerodrome).

The Commitments

By way of illustrating how the monitors of our spoken word feel their way through a miasma of confusion, we can go back to the launch of that well-regarded movie, The Commitments. Someone, apparently, decided to throw a spanner in the works. The tag line on the posters read: "At last, a film with bollix, tossers, sex, soul, boxes, gooters, the works."

No-one in Dublin, Ireland, or anywhere in the world had ever heard of "gooters" but director Alan Parker included it in his dictionary of the Irish argot for international audiences entitled 'A Tosser's Glossary'. (Don't ask, please.)

All of which brings us to the most profound contribution of the Irish to the act of reading and writing. It wasn't James Joyce's Ulysses, or Sterne's Tristram Shandy (far funnier) or anything by Yeats. It goes much deeper. We invented putting spaces between words.

The ancient Greeks, the Romans, and all the rest, wrote in an unbroken script. Writing in "scripto continua" (continuous text) was all the learned scribes of the day needed as an aide mémoire to remind them of stuff they'd already learned by heart. The educated monkish classes of Europe wrote on vellum, or calf-skin. It was hugely expensive, so they crammed in as many letters as they could. But when Christianity reached Ireland, so did Latin. We didn't speak it, so we had to break up the words.

It caught on, across the whole world.

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