Philip Hensher: Whatever happened to earworms and autocuties?

Dictionaries ought to distinguish a popular new usage from an invention by the commentariat
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The Independent Online

The only person I ever knew who actually invented a word was my old friend Mark Simpson, who I believe invented "metrosexual". Successfully invented a word, that is; people invent words all the time to amuse once. Of the dozens of invented words in jabberwocky only "chortle" caught; of the tens of thousands in Finnegans Wake only "quark". But what to pay attention to; and what to ignore?

Language is a living thing, not something to be entombed and frozen. One of the ways it changes most rapidly is through its vocabulary. It's not the only way novelty makes itself felt, but it's the easiest to grasp. A new term for an old thing emerges - "banging" for "excellent", taking over from "wicked". Or, occasionally, a new term for a new thing - no one knew any term for "carbon footprint" before that particular term, because nobody had the concept. The appeal of novelty demands to be recorded, however bogus the particular instance.

The Collins English Dictionary has just published its ninth edition. Like all works of reference, it has tried to make a splash by pointing out its novelties - records, it is suggested, of developments in the language. I'll get on to some of these novelties in a moment, but it might be worth pointing out at this juncture that editions one to eight of the Collins Dictionary have tried to make a splash in exactly the same way. It might be worth going back two editions, to 2003, to see what has happened to some of the novelties highlighted then.

Very few of the ones which attracted attention then seem at all likely to make it into permanent usage, if indeed they formed any part of usage then. "An earworm" was said to refer to a tune you couldn't get out of your head. "Autocutie" was supposed to mean a female TV presenter. Many were, clearly, the sort of artificial invention which might have amused once, but never showed any sign of going into the language; "brain up" as a counterpart to "dumb down", "quarterlife crisis", "chew'n'spew" for a fast food restaurant. In retrospect, these are all very close to the laboured inventions recorded in the Profanisaurus at the back of Viz magazine.

In short, these usages were thought up by journalists and were never in any danger of catching on. The distinction between literary usage and demotic expression is absolutely clear. One of the favourite expressions of magazine journalists in recent years, especially music journalists, is "I saw Liam Gallagher" (say) "in his pomp". Hideous expression, and has anyone ever heard anyone actually saying it? The classic example of this is the so-called word "Bobfoc" - an admittedly amusing acronym for a fit but ugly person, standing for "Body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch". Whoever thought that up was fairly witty, but I utterly doubt that anyone has ever used the expression without carefully explaining it afterwards.

Nevertheless, some strained acronyms have gone successfully into the language, dealing a blow to the principle that any acronymic etymology for a word is always a jocular invention of the Port Out, Starboard Home variety. Twoc, and even the delightful twocking (Taking Without Consent), Asbo, and now WAG have crept into usage. The last, I think, has yet to lose its capitals, but there was no doubt that the girl on Big Brother who said she "wanted to be a WAG" had long ago forgotten what exactly it stood for, if she ever knew.

If WAG seems, for the moment, to have gone into the spoken language, some of the other innovations of the ninth edition of Collins seem much more dubious. "Man-bag" is in, which seems fine - I've said it and bought one myself - but I've never heard anyone say "man flu", though the sense (a mild sniffle, as complained of by a man) is immediately obvious. A couple of weeks ago, the burger chain McDonald's was complaining of the dictionary's reference to "McJobs" as being demeaning. They'd have a better case if they pointed out that the expression had only ever been used, self-consciously, by smart novelists and journalists. If that is contrived, I simply don't believe in a new Collins appearance, "McMansion" for an ostentatious but mass-produced new house. That has all the marks of one-off invention by a journalist.

Such inventions can make what is cold and anonymous seem warm and human, and as such ought to be resisted by dictionaries. Just as no human being other than David Lee Travis ever referred to David Lee Travis as "the hairy cornflake", no one who doesn't work for the BBC has ever referred to it as "Auntie".

Dictionaries, contrary to what they would tell you, are arbiters of judgement. Though many of these contrived usages now enshrined in Collins's have, indeed, appeared in enough separate sources to justify their inclusion, one feels that the dictionary ought somehow to distinguish a popular new usage from a mandarin invention by the commentariat.

The keepers of the dictionary used to have no compunction about labelling a usage "vulg". I think there is a very strong case, when few or no recorded appearances of a word go unaccompanied by an explanatory definition, as, surely, in the case of "McMansion", for labelling the usage "contr." for "contrived". You can't make up language as you go along; it would be truer to say that it invents you, the way you have of seeing the world as well as expressing it.