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Expanding lexicon

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Language is a living, evolving thing. Around 1,000 new words are added to the English language each year. Dictionary debutantes over recent times include hackathon, Sudoku, Brexit, hyperconnected, EpiPen, newsjacking, photobomb and unfriend.

Internet-bred words feature prominently in the batch of new words introduced annually into our lexicon. Words like inbox, spam, tweet, selfie, blog and cyberbullying are now part of the English vernacular. The Internet is arguably the most prevalent influence on our day-to-day dialogue.

Of course, technology has long been a source of new words. Radio and television changed the way we talk and expanded our vocabulary with words like broadcast, sit-com, channel, soap opera, breaking news, prime time, on air and radio antenna.

When I was a boy, the world was in the grip of a space race between America and Russia. Many novel words originated from this battle - Apollo, lunar, astronaut, capsule, payload, orbiter, satellite, launch pad, blast off and re-entry - as we needed new language to keep pace with new technology.

Technology changes culture and culture is reflected in language. Time and time again we see the invention of a word to describe a new technological phenomenon. A slew of words that only recently came into general usage, like Bluetooth, are now bona fide entries in the world’s top English dictionaries.

The banking and finance sector has also coined many new terms over recent times. If you want to sound smart, start dropping into your conversations jargon like cryptocurrency, FinTech, crowdfunding, blockchain, peer-to-peer lending, robo-advice and unicorn (startup companies valued at $US1 billion or more).

The Global Financial Crisis pushed banking and finance from the business pages on to the front pages with talk of bank bailouts and financial Armageddon creating fear and panic in the streets. The meltdown glossary included toxic assets, quantitative easing, credit crunch and sub-prime.

Many avid social media users pride themselves on staying up-to-date with modern lingo. These tech-savvy individuals are comfortable with slang terms such as “snowflake” (a person who is overly sensitive, easily offended or has an inflated sense of entitlement) and “breadcrumbing” (used in dating circles to describe someone who sends an occasional message to maintain someone’s interest but won’t fully commit).

Thanks to Donald Trump, the term “fake news” is on everyone’s lips. This presidential invention acquired legitimacy in 2017 after being named word of the year by Collins Dictionary. Collins revealed that the usage of the term had increased 365 per cent since 2016 giving rise to its “ubiquitous presence”.

We all now know that if you don’t like what someone is saying about you, it’s clearly fake news. Some ardent climate deniers now use the term “fake news” to describe the term “climate change” which entered the Oxford Dictionary in 2010. The Trump administration’s solution to climate change is to ban the term.

Throughout history, writers have been responsible for spawning myriad new words. English poet, John Milton, is considered the most prolific minter of words. He coined 630 words including sensuous, lovelorn, fragrance and pandemonium. Playwright, William Shakespeare is held up as another master neologist. He created 422 words including courtship, critic, swagger and lonely.

Language is an ever evolving medium and while words can be added to language, they can also drop out of the dictionary. Professor of linguistics at Sydney University, Nick Enfield, believes that there is a similarity between words and clothes:

Words, like fashions, come in and out. Like flared pants, some words can attract lots of interest at certain times but can get dated really fast. Words die out when they are no longer at the heart of our language.

The language we use changes for three main reasons - words become obsolete because the thing they refer to no longer exists, fashionable terms become passé and words are superseded by other ways of speaking.

The annual crop of new terms demonstrates how English is changing as society changes. As management guru, Charles Handy, wrote in The Age of Unreason: “Words are the bugles of social change. When our language changes, behavior will not be far behind”.

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas