The quintessential guide to voguish words

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The Independent Online
Have you noticed the way certain words swim in and out of fashion? The way a word which hasn't been used commonly for hundreds of years will suddenly emerge blinking into the spotlight, have its short season of celebrity and then get kicked out of the stage door into the alley behind and back into the dictionary?

The word eponymous, for example. By itself it isn't a very useful word. The number of times you want to refer to something which is named after somebody are less than legion. Yes, we all know by now that a boycott is an eponym, as are guillotine and macintosh and volt and ... well, lots of others, because they are all named after their originator, but it is very rare that we actually wish to refer to the process of something being or becoming eponymous.

And yet often in the past few years I have heard people using the word, as in "Do you remember the film of Tom Jones, with Albert Finney playing the eponymous hero?" Actually, what they really mean is the "title role", as it is stretching the meaning of "eponymous" slightly to extend it to cases when a book or film is named after the hero. But "eponymous" sounds a lot cleverer than "title role" and that is one of the main reasons why words do have a celebrity season before vanishing. They have got vocabulary cred. They sound grander than they really are. They cut a dash. They are a fashion accessory.

That is why you quite often hear people these days use the word "solipsism" or its adjective, "solipsistic". Now, solipsism is quite a serious word, and was always used by philosophers to refer to the theory of knowledge which says that the individual cannot really know anything outside its own range of needs, or, as the Collins Concise Dictionary snappily puts it, "The extreme form of scepticism which denies the possibility of any knowledge other than of one's own existence".

But when you hear people on Start The Week or possibly The Late Review using the word "solipsistic", they are not referring to the extreme form of scepticism which denies the possibility of etc etc. They are using the word as a smart-sounding synonym for "blinkered" or "extremely selfish". Extreme selfishness has become a recognised way of life over the years, giving rise to such passing phrases as "I'm all right, Jack" and "the me generation", which Jonathon Green dates to the early 1970s in his seminal work New Words. But there has always been needed a trendy word to make selfishness seem more interesting than it is, and finally "solipsism" has been chosen for the role. Well done, solipsism! You wear the crown previously worn by narcissism, egoism and autism.

(Yes, autism. Autism did not always refer to a psychological state of non-communication. Autism means only "selfism", and as late as 1980 you will find "autism" listed in Roget's Thesaurus as another word for self- absorption and egocentrism, with no hint of what we now call autism.)

We are always trying to find words which sound more important than the meaning justifies. That is why people say "quintessential" instead of "essential". That is why, instead of using the word "important", it sounds more important if you use the word "seminal", as I did when I referred, two paragraphs back, to "Jonathon Green's seminal work New Words". Now, I don't know if it really is seminal, meaning influential and the beginning of something new and original. I certainly didn't mean that. I have no idea if Green's book has had any effect on anyone except me. When I refer to "Jonathon Green's seminal book", I mean his handy little dictionary in which he has listed a lot of neologisms which often save me a long trawl through bigger dictionaries which don't list them ... But I don't say that. I say "seminal".

Other words which have recently become trendy and then been discarded?


There's "feral".

And there's "cusp".

There's "nodal".

And there's "epiphany".

And there's "shaman" and there's "mimetic" and there's "fatwa" and there's "jihad" and there's "formulaic" and there's "outreach" and there's "palimpsest"...

Ah ! Palimpsest. More of that tomorrow.

Correction and apology. Last week I said that "John Major's main task is now to identify and satisfy the needs of the Tory Party". This of course should have read "John Major's main task is now to identify and satisfy the nerds of the Tory Party". I am sorry if this caused any confusion.