words: sarcastic yak captures picturesque motor-car

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Before our Tuesday Juste a Mot series on new words in the language gets too far into its swing, we ought to take a look at the sort of words that are celebrating significant anniversaries this year. Do the words that enter a language in a given year provide a verbal portrait of the period? The evidence is far from clear.

What did they put beneath carpets before underfelt entered the language in 1895? With biopsy, caoline, mortician and motor-car all dating from that year, one could be excused for identifying it as a moment of great scientific and medical advance, but at the same time a masochist with flagellomania made his first appearance, no doubt boasting his masculinism. On a healthier note, however, this is also the centenary of the Granny Smith and the sportsman.

In total, 1895 gave us 534 new words that have survived into the latest Oxford English Dictionary, which makes 1795, with only 240, look rather vocabularily challenged. That year did, however, give us the exotic yak, as well as clearly setting the modern agenda with terrorism and disarmament. It was also the first time that anybody captured anything. Before then, capture had only been used as a noun.

Interestingly, the word breakfastless also came into the language in 1795. People had been eating breakfast (noun) since 1463; they had breakfasted (verb, intransitive) since 1679, and they had breakfasted others (verb, transitive) since 1793. But nobody went breakfastless until 200 years ago. Yet the state of breakfastlessness must surely have existed since the picturesque (another 1795 innovation) dawn of getting up in the morning. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence, but people first became headachy in 1795 too.

"Me too", as a rather lax form of "I also", dates back, surprisingly, to 1745, making it 250 years old. As indeed are pillow-case, tea-shop and re-election. The language must have had a surplus of hyphens to dispose of that year.

1695 was one of the most linguistically vicious years in history with howitzer, tourniquet and cat o'nine tails all making their first appearances. Denim and sarcastic are also 300 years old.

1595 was the year when a puppy-dog with an itch could alternate between the ballet and an auction and eat a ribroast with savagery and amazement.

While 1495 brought us the first committee, which may explain why it also brought the first disagreement, it was a better year for providing us with a gorgeous wriggle.

Going back much further, we enter the period when the English language could scarcely be differentiated from its roots in Latin, Anglo-Saxon and a variety of other sources. The OED does, however, list one notable millennium to be celebrated this year. So, before retiring and contemplating another night of breakfastlessness, prepare to rest contented in the knowledge that it is 1,000 years since Britons first went to bed.

Warning: Vocabularily and breakfastlessness are neologisms and should not be used without professional advice.

Reminder: The great interactive creative soap will begin soon. All ideas - title, plot, sub-plots, location, characters etc - will be welcome at Creativity, the Independent, 1 Canada Sq, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. The best will be incorporated, the very best, well-rewarded.

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