Gobsmacked by shrimping dweebs: John Windsor scans the latest dictionary for new words that have entered the language Establishment

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The Independent Online
New words that have come into use in the Nineties indicate that, these days, it is not what you are that counts but how you behave. Words describing people as if they were things - yuppie, dinky - went out with the Eighties. Non-aspirational Nineties people care less how others categorise them - but are likely to get 'in your face' if thwarted, say, from 'cocooning' in order to stave off 'compassion fatigue' and recover a little 'feelgood'.

A new dictionary with 200,000 references published this month, Chambers' Encyclopedic English Dictionary ( pounds 25), contains 'squeegies' (crossroads windscreen cleaners - unemployed yuppies?) as a rare remnant of Eighties-style type- casting, and 'shrimping', a Nineties behaviour word unusual for being frivolous amid the dour Nineties expressions for caring and sharing. Shrimping, says David Swarbrick, director of marketing for Larousse, publishers of the dictionary, should result in an award to the Duchess of York and David Mellor for services to the English language. It means 'the practice of sucking a partner's toes for sexual stimulation'.

Lexicography has become a trendy business. Few publishers now maintain any pretence about restricting entries to words that have entered the 'core language', and the criterion of 'established usage' has come to mean whatever a publisher cares to bung in.

Only a year ago, the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary included 4,000 new words, including 'Majorism' and 'dweeb' (boringly conventional person). Three months later the 20-volume OED published two supplements containing an extra 6,000 words, including 'himbo' (male equivalent of bimbo), 'herstory' (history emphasising the role of women) and 'gobsmacked' (astounded).

Mr Swarbrick and Robert Allen, editor of the new Chambers dictionary, have resisted himbo and herstory but allowed dweeb. Himbo was a non-starter, they reckon. Even bimbos have become obsolete. 'Toy boy' has stuck, though now it is used tongue-in- cheek. They approve of 'gobsmacked'. As for 'Ramboesque', in a Collins dictionary: 'It should never have been there,' said Mr Swarbrick. 'Some dictionaries will publish any word that swings.'

Whether a neologism has staying power depends a lot on whether it can be freed from its origins for use in a generalised way. 'Glasnost' never came to mean openness outside the Russian context. 'Yomping', popularised during the Falklands war, never entered civilian language. Tabloid terms tend to be short-lived. But 'feelgood' will probably stay, as long as optimistic economic forecasts fail to produce optimism.

Oddly, the earliest British dictionaries, like today's, set out to list new words rather than champion the purity of the language. In Shakespeare's day, most dictionaries were slim glossaries containing words to do with, say, the leather trade. Cawdrey's dictionary of the early 17th century and Bailey's of the 18th were bought by people who wanted to find out the latest new words. It was Dr Johnson, whose memory is heartily reviled by Mr Allen, who tried to put a stop to that.

'He saw the dictionary as a means of fixing the language. But lexicographers should not be legislators. I don't sit in judgement on words. If they have achieved reasonable use they go in, whether they are offensive, taboo, funny or serious. I always resist pressure to champion 'pure language', the sort of thing the Queen's English Society stands for. It's an illusion. 'Standard English' is what is acceptable to people in power. It is a socio-political, not a linguistic thing. Monstrous.'

Which is why 'sexploitation', 'date rape', 'the munchies' (drug or alcohol-induced craving for food), 'social cleansing' and 'speciesism' have all found their way into his dictionary. All these are behaviour words springing from social change or fresh insights into social change, the sort that pre-Johnsonian lexicographers would have seized upon.

Not that Johnson was totally blind to the cultural perspective. His dictionary famously defined oats as 'a grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people'.

Phrase-based expressions such as 'gobsmacked', 'in your face' and 'feelgood', which Mr Allen gives good chances of survival, are to him evidence that the language is regenerating from its roots, as self-sufficient and resilient to outside influence as ever. Some phrases have become 'nominalised' such as 'cherry-picking' (the business practice of rejecting insurance applications from those considered to be bad risks) and 'mouse-milking' (the pursuit of a project requiring much time and money but yielding little profit).

A few new expressions verge on the sublime, such as 'glass ceiling' (a barrier on the career ladder beyond which certain categories of employee, especially women, can see but not progress). 'A clever, sophisticated visual way of explaining an intangible reality,' said Mr Swarbrick.

'There must have been a creator, a single mind behind that,' said Mr Allen.

The suffix 'ism', as in 'sexism' or 'speciesism', has come to indicate prejudice. Suffixes, except perhaps 'aholic', have not hitherto wielded such power, unless you count Maureen Lipman's eulogy of the 'ology'. A familiar recent suffix is 'gate' as in the original 'Watergate' and later 'Irangate' etc, denoting scandal. But 'gates' with sexual rather than political connotations become 'affairs', as in President Clinton's Whitewater Affair. (Who could get their tongue round Whitewatergate?)

Will 'sizeism' follow the discovery of 'speciesism'? In a small room in Edinburgh, Mr Allen's six readers, like characters in a Dennis Potter drama, pore over mountains of newspapers, magazines, novels, short stories, pamphlets and radio and television scripts. When they spot what they think is a new word they highlight it with a yellow felt-tipped pen, then prepare a 'citation' listing the word's source. Four or five citations over a couple of years usually merits a dictionary entry.

There is 'handbagging', for example, a reference to behaviour attributed by some to Margaret Thatcher, which seems, judging by the citations, to be the almost exclusive creation of the Daily Telegraph. Mr Allen regrets not having put it in the dictionary.

Then there is the dictionary's 'bodacious' (extraordinary, outstanding). More regret: the word does not deserve to be there. The earliest citation of it presented to me by Mr Allen was from the Edinburgh fortnightly The List, of March 1993. The List told me the context was a review of the American film Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. 'Bodacious' is Bill and Ted's made-up word. Bogus journey, indeed. Pshaw]

(Photograph omitted)

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