The volatile and vivacious world of the adjective

`Formulaic' is a word much used by lazy TV executives - as if there were any other kind
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"I ALWAYS feel sorry for the word `pyrrhic'. `Pyrrhic' is a really neat little adjective, but it's never going to get very far up the ratings. Do you know why? Because it only has one usage. Only a victory can be `pyrrhic'. Nothing else can. You can't have a pyrrhic election or a pyrrhic dinner party. There's no other way you can use the word `pyrrhic', other than with `victory', so it doesn't crop up that often. No wonder it doesn't even make the top 1,000 in the world..."

Hold on, hold on! Who is our arcane informant and what on earth is he on about? Ratings for adjectives? Top 1,000 adjective lists? Is someone mad?

No, far from it. Tennis players and golfers are not the only ones who have their own world rankings. It's beginning to happen to discrete parts of speech as well. And Oscar Beussberger, who is head of ATP (Adjective Trend Plotting), is in charge of keeping an eye on the mercurial changes in adjective popularity. At the ATP headquarters, which are situate in a prestigious suburb of Oxford, they are busy night and day computing the comparative standing of various adjectives, as part of the ongoing process of measuring the speed at which language changes.

It's challenging and gruelling work, logging all use of adjectives, but it's also giving the ATP people a unique insight into the organic way a language evolves.

"Let's take a look at what you've written already," says Oscar Beussberger, peering sneakily over my shoulder at the preceding paragraphs. "Let's see how many of our favourite adjectives you've got in... Oh, yes, quite a few from the World Standings there! For instance, `arcane' (which has come up from nowhere to number 159 over the last 10 years), `prestigious' ( which hardly existed 40 years ago and is now up to 188) and `ongoing' (which reached a dizzy 56 a few years back and is now down to 143 and still slipping).

"`Mercurial' - quite nice. `Situate' - very nice! And I'm glad you managed to avoid the temptation to use the word `insightful', which is an American import which should never have been allowed to talk a foothold here.

"Of course," says Oscar Beussberger, "as a scientist of language I should just be observational and not - are you ready for this horrible adjective? - judgemental. But when you work with adjectives every day you get to love some, loathe others. Can a zoo-keeper be blamed for preferring okapi to rats? I think not. Can I be blamed for liking `inspissated' more than `squamous'? Surely not..."

But how do adjectives become popular? What makes an epithet emerge from dusty years of disuse into the limelight?

"Well, one way is through boredom. People get bored with saying `bland' all the time. Then they find that `anodyne' means roughly the same thing and sounds grander, so they start using that instead. `Solipsistic' means, roughly, egotistical on a grand scale, so that has started to creep in instead of `selfish'.

"Incidentally, I was very impressed to see you use the word `discrete'. That's almost died out now, because people have forgotten the difference between `discreet' and `discrete'. `Discreet' is driving `discrete' out, just as minks crowd out the otter."

Oscar Beussberger has seen adjectives come and go in his time, rising and falling in the lists. Once "psychedelic" was in the top 10. Now it's not even in the top 1,000. "Epiphanic" has come from nowhere recently, whereas "cathartic" is ebbing. "Holistic" is right up there, which is good work, especially considering that the word didn't even exist 100 years ago.

"`Formulaic' is a word much used by lazy TV executives, as if there were any other kind of TV executive," says Oscar. "Nobody else uses it. But it's still managed to creep up to No 125.

"`Feral' was very trendy for a while, but is fading now. `Iconic' is very big, of course, and so is `ironic' - actually, it's quite odd when you get two words very similar but both thriving, like `ironic' and `iconic'. One usually tends to drive the other out. Because of the bawdy familiarity of the word `fornicate', you don't see the word `formicate' much, although it's the only word to use of ants swarming. Similarly, ever since `homophobic' hit the top 100, we haven't heard much of `homophonic'."

But Oscar Beussberger's chief work at the moment is putting the finishing touches to the Adjective of the Century Poll, in which voting takes place next week. Which will be the literate public's choice for top adjective of the age? Will "pristine" carry it off ? Has "dysfunctional" got a real chance? How about "entrepreneurial"?

All the runners tomorrow, plus a voting form!