Join the search for English's latest arrivals

Language constantly evolves, but how far should we go in accepting new words? Entering our competition may offer you some answers.

INSULT A man's wife, cast aspersions upon his dog or even call into question his sexual prowess and there is more chance of emerging unscathed than if you have presumed to correct his command of our language. It is a paradox that, in an age when educational standards are plummeting, there should be more than a residual delight in the means by which to articulate thought.

Only the other day, in these pages, Andreas Whittam Smith inveighed cogently against that bogus phrase "world class", which is tacked on to some trumpery scheme or other as a means to justify it - just as "centre of excellence" is invariably dragooned into service by arts administrators.

Hannibal Lecter and Harry Potter slug it out with Delia Smith's leftovers in the battle to sell the most books, but among their most sedulous readers are compilers of dictionaries and other reference books. These are the rock upon which many a publisher stands. Such a foundation offers some security, while waving the flag for those titles that are caught on the wind of publicity only to flutter rapidly earthwards.

We cannot repine. Anybody who writes on words runs the risk of becoming a curmudgeon, of spluttering awake in a club armchair and lamenting that the whole bally show has not been the same since the death of Kipling. To enjoy language you have to revel in it all, just as any real pleasure in music means that you are always alert to something different - where would Mahler have been without folk song?

In writing the daily Words column in this newspaper, I soon found that the knack is to go with the flow - and, indeed, as I write that, questions cross the mind about "knack" and also "bally" (watch that space). It is not simply a matter of looking up some fusty books, or even of consciously keeping the ears and eyes open. I may appear to be reading a book on the bus but am really listening to the seat behind, which is so often an Alan Bennett play in miniature. It is a curious fact that something noted down duly links up with something else, so it is not unusual to write about, say, Thackeray and Elvis Presley in the same sentence.

All of which has to find a flowing place in the daily ration of 765 characters. This may appear to be ad hoc but is, of necessity, something of the way in which the compilers of dictionaries have to work.

Big Brother in Seattle could yet monitor usage, but in the meanwhile there is always somebody who comes along and points out a linguistic gap, howling or otherwise. Just as people correct my comments upon, say, an item fugitive from all dictionaries, the Tardis.

"Yes," remarks Ian Brooks, at Collins Dictionaries in Glasgow, "the Tardis is certainly something that we should consider, and I have on file your item about 'permie', used by contract workers for those on the staff. We have a team of seven people who are continuously reading, keeping up with all the daily newspapers, and there is a network of people who send in items, and of course we consult all the trade glossaries. Everybody has to use some judgement about what to include if a book is not to become unwieldy. Some 2,000 words surface each year - six a day - and perhaps 100 of them will last. I harbour doubts about 'Frankenstein food'; it feels like something coined in an office and my impression is that people themselves do not use it - unlike 'lager lout'. And will that word for the Chinese in space - Tigernaut - take off?"

Competition

Try your own hand at language-spotting in this competition. Send me your own Words entry on some recent quirk of language you have spotted (in fewer than 765 characters, please) marked 'Competition'. My address is Christopher Hawtree, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL, and entries should arrive by Monday, 20 December.

The first prize is the Times Atlas of the World: Millennium Edition (pounds 125) and a Collins Wordfinder (pounds 24.99) and Collins Dictionary (pounds 29.99); the second prize, a Collins Dictionary and a Collins Wordfinder; the third prize, a Collins Dictionary and a Collins Thesaurus (pounds 16.99). Twelve runners- up will each receive a copy of the Collins Dictionary.

A GUIDE TO THE NEW VOCABULARY

boss key: a computer key that changes the display from recreational to work mode.

breatharianism: New Age cult whose followers believe they can live without

food or drink.

digitopia unlimited access to radio and TV channels promised with digital, cable, satellite etc.

Dot Cotton defence: defence against drugs charge, claiming that the drug was intended for medicinal use only.

O'Ligarchy: influential professional people in Ireland.

plastic fatigue anger caused by carrying too many bank cards, store cards etc.

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