Those of us interested in the upkeep of the nation’s word hoard always look forward to the annual unveiling of the Collins dictionary “words of the year” list. Happily, last week’s trawl through the latest batch of neologisms was full of good stuff. Naturally, “Corbynomics”, aka “the economic policies advocated by the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn”, headed the roster, along with “dadbod”, defined, to my considerable disquiet, as “an untoned and slightly plump male physique”, but there was also room for “manspreading” (“the act or an instance of a male passenger on a bus or train splaying his legs in a way that denies space to the passenger sitting next to him”) and “clean eating”, which apparently means to follow a diet containing only natural foods, low in sugar and fat.
Curiously enough, despite a year’s eavesdropping on the upper decks of buses and in football stadium crowds – the kind of places, it might be said, where genuine demotic floats through the ether – I had heard of only two of them. All of which raises the doubtless unfathomable question of where new words come from, who mints them and who – most important of all – makes a point of transmitting news of their discovery to the language police. After all, if the Collins compilers are to be believed, there must have been a moment when, in some train chugging through the north country or in a double-decker inching its way along the Wandsworth Road, someone with not the least idea of the consequences for lexicography turned a hostile gaze on the person in the next seat and instructed them to “stop bloody well manspreading”.
The question of linguistic origins is always worth filing, if only because so many people who use language are so fanatically determined both to advance its boundaries and claim the credit for this extension. There is, for example, a wonderful moment in the American teen film Mean Girls in which one of the characters, fond of describing things as “so fetch”, is briskly informed by her friends that there is no way the expression is going to catch on. The same point was made, at a slightly more elevated level, about the early Martin Amis novels, with their talk of “rug-rethinks” (haircuts), “socks” (flats) and “going tonto” (ie, mad). Useless for Amis to protest that this was how he and his friend the late Christopher Hitchens actually talked: the hint of fabrication, of words being coaxed into being merely for the sake of it, hung ominously in the air.
It was the same with the hard-boiled Thirties thriller writer James Curtis, responsible for such picturesque metaphors as “galloping the antelope” (ie, masturbating) and vast amounts of idiomatic low-life banter, whose hundreds of citations in the slang dictionaries of the inter-war era lose much of their force when you deduce that, in the vast majority of cases, they are the only citations. Curtis, for reasons best known to himself, was making the things up. On the other hand, the ability of highly coded “insider” language to suddenly break out of its corralling in a tiny demographic subgroup and turn mainstream is a feature of 20th-century language transfer.
One might take as evidence Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies (1930), a typescript of which was given to the novelist’s elder brother, Alec, towards the end of 1929. While proclaiming himself a fan of the book, Alec enquired: did anyone really use such phrases as “sick-making” and “drunk-making” with which the story was littered? Well, yes, Evelyn conceded, one or two of his friends sometimes employed this kind of argot. Six weeks later, by which time the novel was in proof, Alec noticed that the parties he attended were full of revellers insisting that such and such a beverage was “not very drunk-making” or that one of their number lived in “a very sheepish house” – an adjective Waugh is supposed to have embedded (to use a word that very probably turns up in this year’s Collins) in his text merely to honour the pet lamb owned by the 12-year-old sister of his friend Nancy Mitford.
By the week of the book’s publication, on the other hand, the entire West End of London, so far as Alec could tell, was falling over itself to borrow from this new lexicon. And yet in Vile Bodies’ extraordinary colonising progress lay the seeds of its obsolescence. For nothing is so insubstantial, so liable to be superannuated or simply to shift its meaning, as a neologism. Quite three-quarters of the words proudly added to the language in 2015 will be forgotten a decade hence, gone the way of “He’s a pip” (1940s slang for “I don’t fancy yours much”, probably derived from a disease of poultry as in “He gives me the pip”) or “chaste” (the proper early Victorian adjective for a tastefully decorated house) or “All Sir Garnet” (ie, “tidy”, after Sir Garnet Wolseley, the martinet Victorian field marshal). In much the same way, while Watergate hangs over US politics like a dust cloud, the mid-Seventies noun-to-verb transition of “Don’t Watergate me out of my money, mom” has altogether disappeared.
Unimaginative onlookers sometimes complain that all this is mere pedantry, and that the fact that 150 years ago the expression “I don’t half like him” meant exactly what it says (ie, “on a scale of one to 10, I rate him less than five”), rather than the modern ironic usage of “I really do like him”, is of no interest to anyone beyond the offices of the Shorter Oxford. In fact, the arrival of new words in the dictionary has a symbolic importance quite beyond its practical value of finding fresh and sometimes valuable ways to describe things. For, in the majority of cases, it is an example of a genuinely popular cultural impetus in action: something that comes, more or less, from nowhere, has no connection to the mass-market forces that grind us down, and exists for just as long as the people using it find it relevant.
Inevitably, quite a few of these expressions tend to be frowned upon by polite society – see the tremendous fuss occasioned by words such as “chav” or “pram face” (teenage single parent bent over her baby carriage) – yet, in the majority of cases, you can’t help noticing that they have a vigour denied the euphemisms of the drawing room. My father, for example, had a standard piece of shorthand for displays of bad manners or boorish behaviour. This was the single word – I imagine the technical term is a synecdoche – “Pockthorpe”. Investigation revealed that this was a particularly rough area of late 19th-century Norwich, along whose feral streets the police dared venture only in twos. No doubt to describe anyone as “Pockthorpe” was as bad as calling them a chav, but somehow the word has a rough-and-ready quality that more seemly expressions rather lack.
As for my own contributions to the word hoard, in two decades of newspaper journalism I think I only twice came up with anything new. One was to describe the band of somewhat introspective early Nineties columnists whose habit it was to regale their readers with accounts of their boyfriends’ shaving technique and the splendid Thai takeaway they had recently enjoyed as the “New Solipsists”. This has long since vanished, but I have hopes for “the Murdoch defence”, as in James, which allows you to get off being charged for a really serious crime by claiming incompetence.
The pleasure that this kind of invention affords is practically limitless. It was George Orwell, after all, who once said that he would sooner have written a popular song such as “Come to the pub next door” (“Come where the boss is a bit of a sport/Come to the pub next door”) than any amount of highbrow poetry. I feel much the same way about “dadbod”.
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