New Words For New Times

Germany has a checkered history, to put it mildly, but you’ve got to to give them credit in one area. As I’ve noted before, Germans have an uncanny knack for inventing useful words that capture very specific feelings or concepts.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Germany would be leading the way in inventing new words to deal with the COVID-19 world. In fact, the Leibniz Institute for the German Language did an analysis and determined that some 1,200 new words have been created during this pandemic period. One of the professors involved in the process of collecting the words concludes that the word creation process helps the German to deal with pandemic anxiety, which is captured by one of the new words: Coronaangst.

Some of the 1,200 words are pretty useful, and I’m going to try to incorporate them into my daily vocabulary. For example:

Impfneid — vaccination envy

Hamsterkauf — panic buying and stockpiling food like a hamster (This one is bound to be used in the post-pandemic world, whenever a hurricane or some other hazardous impending event is forecast.)

Coronafrisur — corona hairstyle (Who doesn’t know at least one person who hasn’t grown a special coronafrisur? I’ll be using this one the next time I talk to the Red Sox Fan, who has grown a remarkable mane during the shutdown period.)

Alltagsmaske — everyday mask

Abstandsbier — distance beer

Maskentrottel — literally, “mask idiot,” to refer to someone who wears a face covering leaving the nose exposed

When you consider the choice words the Germans have come up with, I’m afraid we Americans are losing the Words Race. About the only new phrase I can think of is “social distancing”–which I think gets absolutely blown out of the water by hamsterkauf.

Word-A-Day

For many years now, one of my standard holiday gifts to Kish has been a “word-a-day” calendar.  It’s a calendar that features a different, typically unusual word each day, gives you the definition and the pronunciation — if you can decipher those weird pronunciation symbols, that is — and then provides a quote that uses the word in a sentence.

It’s an interesting thing to check out each day, and a chance to engage in a little vocabulary building.  Typically the words on the calendar fall into three categories:  words we already know and use, words that you would never try to work into a conversation, and words that you actually think could become part of your standard word-stock.  The first category is easily the smallest in size, but when the calendar does use a word we already use — yesterday’s word, for example, was rarefied — you feel a certain sense of accomplishment.  The second category is the largest.  Sometimes the words are so technical that there really is no chance to use them in everyday conversation, and others are so high-falutin’ you can’t imagine dropping them into a discussion.  Tomorrow’s word, for example, is faineant, with an accent over the e, which means idle and ineffectual or indolent.  I doubt I could even pronounce that one properly, much less find an opportunity to use it correctly.

But the third category is why you buy the calendar.  Today’s word, quiddity, falls into that category.  My favorite recent word in that category is gorgonize, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect, and is synonymous with stupefy or petrify.  I’m saving that one up for a choice opportunity — like when one of my friends tells a long-winded story about people I don’t know at lunch and I confess that their tale gorgonized me.

 

The New Words Of 1957

Language is a living thing — ever-changing, morphing and adapting to develop new words to capture and describe new devices, thoughts, and concepts.  Merriam-Webster has come up with a nifty way to illustrate that point.  It’s called the Time Traveler, and it allows you to pick a year and see which new words were first used in print that year.

41hmjsg3yhlSo why not try 1957, the year of my birth and the year of the largest explosion of births in the American Baby Boom?  Just to set the context, it was the second term of the Eisenhower Administration, federal troops were called out to allow nine African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 and started the Space Race, the last episode of I Love Lucy was broadcast and the first episodes of American Bandstand and Perry Mason aired on black and white TVs with rabbit ear antennas, and artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard dominated the popular music charts.

And according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler, in 1957 words like bitchin’, chuffed, fantabulous, herky-jerky, hipsterism, lowball, low-rent, magic mushroom, overkill, pothead, rumble strip, scumbag, and Zen-like first appeared in print and made their way into popular lexicon.  “Static cling” was coined — no doubt by a Madison Avenue-type — to describe the annoying condition of clothes that have just come out of the dryer, “gold record” was first used to describe a hit, and somebody thought that “happy camper” was a good way to describe a contented individual.  And more serious words and phrases, like amniocentesis, antiballistic missile, cardiomyopathy, computerize, informed consent, pat down, and transsexual entered the national vocabulary.

Where would we be without words like “low-rent” and “happy camper”?  I’d say that 1957 made our national conversation a little bit richer.

Acronyms In The OED

Every so often the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary decides that new words, phrases, and slang have become sufficiently accepted to be included in the next publication.  For those interested in our language, it is a momentous occasion.

The most recent announcement features many new words, like “tinfoil hat” and “couch surfer” and (horrors!) “wassup,” as well as new usages, like recognizing “heart” as a verb (as in “I [heart shape] NY”).  A number of the newly recognized words are in fact acronyms — or, to use the word used by the OED, “initialisms.”  These new selections would delight Valley Girls, emailophiles, and hard-core texters.  They include “OMG,” “LOL,” “IMHO,” “TMI,” and “BFF.”  For those of you who, like me, wonders whether “TMI” refers to Three Mile Island, it doesn’t — it means “too much information.”

The continued generation of new words and usages shows that English remains a vibrant, growing language — so much so that an English speaker from the year 2350 reading Catcher in the Rye would find its English as distant from their usage as Shakespeare is from the modern tongue.  But if “OMG” and “LOL” are now regarded as proper uses of the King’s English, can “CYA” and “WTF” be far behind?