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Little ways to sink the subs

A teacher once told me that completely new words in English, with no apparent derivation, are almost unknown. "Quiz is the only one I can think of," he told me. "The man who invented the word 'gas' said later that he might have been basing it on 'chaos'. That's about it. If you can think of a wholly original new word, let me know."

I haven't thought of one yet. Most new words are firmly attached to the old family tree. The other day I was browsing in the undergrowth of the English language, down where they prune and cut things back and form abbreviations that then take on new life, and I was reflecting on the word "sub", which started life as a lowly abbreviation and has since sprouted into several identities of its own.

Oddly, I failed to mention the most obvious one, which is familiar to all newspaper people. When a journalist says that he must have a quick word with the subs, he doesn't mean that he is going off to talk to submarines, or have a chat with twelth men at a cricket game, or even to speak to the subscription department; he means he is going to consult the sub-editors, those scholarly and wise people who read through the copy of everyone from the editor downwards and who not only make it look good but make sure that none of them commits a solecism or plain mistake.

There is no particular word for what the subs do, except to say that they are sub-editing. This has generally been shortened into "subbing", so when a journalist says that his copy has been "subbed", it means that it has been cleared of the lamentable errors of fact and spelling that he inserted in his ignorance, or maybe just to torment the subs.

An abbreviation from a noun can not only become a new noun but a verb in its own right. Turn "sub" back to front and you get the word "bus", which started life as "omnibus" and got shortened to "bus", which the Americans converted into the verb "bus", meaning "to put children into a bus and take them from the area in which they live and put them in a school of a different racial or social mix, so as to make that mix a bit more heterogeneous", which you have to admit is quite a heavy meaning for three little letters.

It also creates another headache for the subs. There must have been a time when the subs of the world groaned at one of their regular meetings and said, "If 'bus' is going to be a verb, how on earth are we going to spell the gerund? Will it be 'busing' or 'bussing'?"

Well, they went for "bussing", which is a bit of a shame in a way, as it spelt the final end of the word "to buss", that fine old alternative to "to kiss", though I suppose the arrival of "bus" had begun to threaten "buss" 100 years ago. You might say that it is hard for two meanings to co-exist - when cigarette-makers decided to take over the word "woodbine" from the hedgerow, the new nicotine-stained usage must have stopped it meaning "honeysuckle" almost immediately - but then you think of the word "con", which has more meanings than "sub" ever did and is a happy abbreviation for at least five different words:

1. "Contra", as in "pros and cons";

2. "Convenience", as in "all mod cons";

3. "Confidence", as in "con man";

4. "Convict", as in "ex-con";

5. "Conditioning", as in "a car with air con".

All these meanings seem to live together happily without overlapping, but only one of them has been promoted to life as a verb. Yes, step forward No 3, which has given birth to "con" as a verb, as in "to con someone out of a fortune", although it is worth pointing out that there was a verb "con" already, meaning to have a good look at, which survives in the words used by people who go down under the sea in subs, "conning tower".

I wouldn't have included the expression "air con" except that I heard it used by a car salesman the other day. A lot of abbreviations come into the language from commerce and advertising. The communications people gave us "fax" from "facsimile", which must have annoyed all those who liked to think that "fax" meant "facts", as in "fax 'n' info" (another expression that seems to have curled up and died). Estate agents gave us "mod con" - in fact, it must have been estate agents who taught us to think and talk in abbreviations. I once heard someone reading out a list of possible flats from the Evening Standard, saying, "Here's one with garden, 3 beds, kitch, bath", and his wife saying, "But I don't want a kitsch bathroom ..."

I've had a sudden thought. New words. Original new words. Couple of candidates. "Strimmer" and "scam". Where do they come from?

(To be continued ...)