Languages change all the time

If you have studied the English language at school, college or university you will know that it has changed since its beginnings to the present time. The following are the opening lines of Beowulf, written in Old English between 700 and 1000:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon

Unless you have taken a course in Old English, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to understand this passage. English gets easier to understand over time, so that Chaucer’s Middle English is not as hard to read as Old English, and Shakespeare’s Early Modern English is not all that far removed from Modern English.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure famously made a distinction between studying a language diachronically, i.e. over time, and synchronically, i.e. at a particular time in its history. The distinction seems to be a useful one when we compare Beowulf with any piece of modern writing. However, in recent times linguists have questioned De Saussure’s distinction, and have pointed out that languages change all the time, even within the life span of individuals, and we can therefore speak of changes in progress, sometimes called ‘current change’. Nowadays, with the advent of large collections of language data (called corpora) tracking such changes has become easier.

Languages can change in many different ways.  The kinds of changes we can observe include sound changes, changes in the meaning or frequency of use of words, and changes in grammar. Let’s have a look at some examples.

Sound changes played a very prominent role in English, especially between 1350 and 1600 when the Great Vowel Shift took place. However, even in the present time changes in pronunciation happen. This is very obvious when you listen to announcers in old cinema newsreels: they sound distinctly different from present-day newscasters. Even the Queen’s pronunciation has changed over recent years, as recent research from a German University has shown.

In a post on my blog Grammarianism I discuss how the use of modal verbs has changed over the past few decades. Especially notable is the decline of must, which we can use to tell others to do something (“You must arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”). Most likely as a result of our society becoming less hierarchical, speakers of English now tend to use different ways of making requests of others, without sounding too authoritarian. For example, they might use have to (“You have to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”) or need to (“You need to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”) instead.

As another example of changes in the use of particular words Catherine Soanes writes about the decline of the word whilst on the Oxford Dictionaries blog. She suggests that the reason for this decline might be that it sounds somewhat old-fashioned and pretentious, at least in the US. As for the UK, she observes:

In British English, whilst’ incurs less opprobrium, but guides and dictionaries usually advise that ‘while’ is preferable, given that it’s the most common form and may sound more up to date.

My own observations suggest that whilst may be making a comeback. I heard it recently in an announcement on a train platform: “Please take care whilst it is raining”. More tellingly, I hear it all the time in the speech of my 9-year old daughter and her friends. Of course, this is only anecdotal, and not solid evidence of a change, but if younger generations start re-using words, they may well be coming back into the language. Think also of the word cool which wasn’t cool for a long time, but it is now again being used by young people. Returning to whilst, interesting data on its use in the US are available in the following table from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

bas-blog-2

COCA contains 520 million words, and the data are sourced from a large number of different text categories, including spoken material (shown at the top of the table). In the right-hand portion of the table we see a slight, but steady, increase in the use of whilst per million words between 1995 and 2015.

What about changes in grammar, i.e. the syntactic patterns that we find in language? Another observation I made in the speech of my youngest daughter (she’s a great source of data!) is the emergence of what I will call the isn’t it that-construction. Here are some examples:

Dad, isn’t it that you promised to make pancakes?

Isn’t it that Sarah’s party is this afternoon?

This construction seems to constitute a new way of asking questions: rather than asking Dad, didn’t you promise to make pancakes?  the new construction seems to be a clipped version of the longer Isn’t it the case that you promised to make pancakes? It’s not clear how the new construction came about, or whether it is more widespread than just in the speech of my daughter and her friends. At present the most we can say is that changes like this are trends, and more research is needed to find out if they will ever fully become part of the English language.


Bas Aarts is Professor of English Linguistics at UCL and the author of the Oxford Modern English Grammar. He is also a founder of the free Englicious website for teachers of English.

Hygge

hygge2People around the world have long benefited from what Denmark has to offer those who live outside its borders. Famous exports from this relatively small country include Lego™, Danish furniture design and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. In the UK, interest in our Nordic neighbours has also risen as many have become hooked on the various Scandinavian thriller series now shown on British TV, including Denmark’s The Killing.

The latest Danish offering has arrived in the English-speaking world in the form of a word rather than a product or TV show. I first came across this term as I scoured an article claiming to reveal the Danish secret to raising happy children. As a mother of two, I was naturally intrigued to know what I could do to make my young offspring as happy as the Danes. I discovered that the answer, as put forward by the writer of the article, lay in bringing more “hygge” into our lives.

Although this word has only recently come into use among non-Danish speakers, it’s already made quite an impression. With no direct translation, hygge, pronounced /hʊgə/ or /h(j)uːgə/, involves getting cosy and enjoying life’s pleasures. Unsurprisingly, retailers haven’t missed the opportunity to cash in on this trend and if you go into any modern homeware shop in Britain, you’re likely to notice a lot of Scandinavian-inspired home accessories. Soft cushions, candles, and pieces of furniture made from natural materials all help build the perfect hygge scene.

While creating a calm, homely atmosphere is one part of hygge, the concept is about more than your environment. In its true form, hygge is about taking time to savour the moment, either on your own or with the people around you. This could mean enjoying a meal with friends, taking a relaxing bath or curling up on the sofa with a good book. The key is to fully appreciate what’s happening and avoid distractions. With all this in mind, it seems hardly surprising that hygge has been linked to Denmark’s ranking as one of the world’s happiest nations. It is also perhaps no coincidence that our growing interest in hygge has come at a time of political upheaval in the United Kingdom and the United States.

While many endorsements of the art of hygge can be found on social media and in the shops, there’s also been a growing backlash. If you do a search for hygge on the Internet, you’ll see titles such as, “Enough with the hygge already!” and “Hygge: The dark side of Danish comfort…” Those who don’t agree with the hype about hygge label it as smug and boring, and point out that cosiness and a good atmosphere are not exclusively Danish qualities, but qualities that have been embraced within many cultures for centuries.

Love it or hate it, hygge is becoming more and more common in English, and even made the shortlist for 2016’s Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. It is used not only as a noun in its own right, but also before other nouns as a modifier. You can have a hygge experience or moment, enjoy a hygge dinner or visit a hygge home.

Hygge in all its forms is a loanword, the term we use for words that we adopt from other languages. Other words from Scandinavia that have recently begun to appear more frequently in English include “fika”, a Swedish word used to describe the custom of taking a break for a hot drink and often a baked treat, and “lagom”, another Swedish word, meaning lack of excess. Can you guess which Scandinavian languages these better-known loanwords come from?*

  1. troll
  2. slalom
  3. smorgasbord
  4. gravlax
  5. ombudsman

*See the Word Origin section of each OALD entry to find out.

Only time will tell whether hygge, like these other words, is here to stay in the English language, or whether it will just be a flash in the pan. Whatever its fate, as the digital world draws us away from simpler pastimes and pleasures, perhaps we’d all benefit from following the example of the Danes and “hygge-fying” our lives a little more.

Hygge is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.


Leonie Hey is an Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011. She is bringing hygge to Oxford one cake at a time. 

Listicle

It’s difficult to go on any social media site without quickly coming across a link to a list of “mind-blowing facts”, “reasons why…” or “mistakes you might be making”. This increasingly popular form of online content has become known as a ‘listicle’, which, as the perceptive among you might have guessed, is a cross between a list and an article, divided into numbered or bullet-pointed sections of text that are often accompanied by pictures or GIFs. Listicles can be based on pretty much any subject matter: a quick Google search provides results that range from the generic (“67 Awesome Halloween Costume Ideas”) to the very specific (“31 Kitchen Products For People Who Seriously Love Star Wars”), from distracting fluff (“30 Baby Animals That Will Make You Go ‘Aww’”) to genuinely useful tips (“4 Ways You Can Register To Vote In Less Than 5 Minutes”). And so, without further ado:

5 Mind-Blowing Facts You Need To Know About The Word ‘Listicle’

1) It’s a portmanteau word
English speakers love making new words by blending two pre-existing words, and ‘listicle’ is no exception. Many of the new words that were added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary earlier this year are portmanteau words: you can read more about them here and here.

2) The concept predates the word
‘Listicle’ may be a new word, originating in the early Noughties, but pieces of writing structured as lists have been around for a long while, from lists of beauty tips in teen magazines to ‘Top Ten’ lists of songs or albums by music journalists. You might be surprised to learn that a 19th century example of something that looks a lot like a listicle was unearthed a couple of years ago, entitled “The 25 Stages From Courtship To Marriage” – you can read about it here (http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-25-stages-from-courtship-to-marriage/). However, list-style articles have undergone a dramatic surge in popularity with the 21st century rise of online-only media outlets such as BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, and the recent coinage of the word ‘listicle’ seems to reflect the increased need for a precise way of referring to this distinctive form.

3) It’s not the only new word to originate from the word ‘article’
The word ‘charticle’, while less popular than ‘listicle’, has also come into use in recent years, and is a similar portmanteau word, this time blending chart and article. It refers to an article structured around charts or infographics.

4) Listicle titles are often prime examples of clickbait
Another common feature of the listicle is a title ending in something along the lines of “number 5 will shock you!” These titles are described as clickbait because they act as virtual bait, designed to make someone mindlessly scrolling through Facebook stop and click on the link to find out what could possibly be so shocking. (And yes, ‘clickbait’ is yet another portmanteau word!)

5) Not everyone loves listicles
Listicles have been criticised as a lowbrow and dumbed-down form by some journalists, who think that their simple list structure eradicates the need for good storytelling or a coherently-linked argument. The Canadian journalist Jeffrey Dvorkin went so far as to declare that clickbait and listicles will be “the death of journalism”. Controversial as they might be, though, listicles are undeniably popular. A counterargument to the criticisms of listicle haters like Dvorkin might be that modern life is increasingly fast-paced and full of multitasking, and so we don’t always have time to sit down with a newspaper and read a lengthy, well-researched article. A listicle can be the perfect way to fill a five-minute bus journey with some easily digestible infotainment. And besides, don’t we all need to just sit back, switch our brains off and scroll through 45 cats that are too fluffy to even exist every now and again?

fluffy-kitten-croppedWhichever side of the listicle debate you’re on, it looks like the word is here to stay. The neologism ‘listicle’ is becoming almost as widely-used as the form it denotes, cropping up more and more often in mainstream discourse (the Guardian, the Independent and the New York Times have all published articles discussing listicles in the last few years), and its inclusion in the next update of the online edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is a testament to its newfound popularity among English speakers.

Anyway, I’d better wrap this up – I’ve got some baby animals to look at, and I need to find out whether number 17 is really so cute I’ll want to squish it.

‘Listicle’ is not yet in the online edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but is one to look out for in the next update.


Laura Shanahan is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP earlier this year, she studied French and Italian at university, and spent a year abroad teaching English in Italy. She has also worked at a translation agency, a bookshop and a library. She is an avid reader of listicles and books alike.

Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)

Bae

baeScrolling idly through Instagram about six months ago I saw a photo of a young couple staring into each other’s eyes with soppy expressions on their faces. So far, so predictable. What briefly caught my ever-editorial eye, however, was the caption: ‘Me and my bae’. I automatically presumed that the pair were so distracted by their passionate romance that they’d mistyped ‘babe’, so I thought nothing more of it. Over the next few days and weeks, though, I saw more and more references to bae on social media. At first I was willing to pass it off as an epidemic of typos, but as time went on and the bae usage became more prolific and varied, I became increasingly suspicious that there was more to this than a simple misspelling.

I took to trusty Google for enlightenment, searching for ‘what does bae mean’ (you know you’re getting older when you start having to google words used on social media). My search, rather confusingly, returned two answers. One that it is an abbreviated form of ‘babe’, and the other that it is in fact an acronym for ‘Before Anything Else’. There seemed to be no definitive proof either way, but the meaning – a term of endearment – was evident. I was intrigued though, so I started paying more attention to the contexts in which bae was being used in an attempt to better understand its meaning.

I found examples of the word being used as a noun (‘J-Law’s rumoured new bae, Chris Martin, was also in the vicinity’, ‘When you and bae say the same thing at the same time’), a verb (‘Chloë Grace Moretz just revealed she’d totally bae Zac Efron’) and an adjective (‘Ice cream is bae’). It seems that bae is primarily a noun used to refer to a person’s boyfriend or girlfriend, but that it has morphed over time to take on a wider meaning: a term that can be used to label things as very good, as in the ice cream example above. The verbal usage appears to have stemmed from a British radio station, which uses a humorously named game, ‘To bae or not to bae’, as part of their interviews with celebrities. The game involves the radio presenter naming various well-known people and asking the celebrity interviewee if they would ‘bae them’, i.e. if they would date them.

Finally I felt suitably informed and confident that if I have the urge to use the word bae myself, I will do so correctly, and I hope anyone reading this now feels similarly equipped. Just to put your knowledge of current English vernacular to the test, I will leave you with the following quote from The Huffington Post to decode: ‘Talk to the hand, bae, ’cause your basic face aint on fleek!’

Click here to see the online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary entry for bae.


About the author: Stacey Bateman is a Production Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Spain and worked for a sports and local interest publisher in Derby before joining OUP in 2011. She would count reading and all things floral as bae.

Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)

Mansplain

Writers have always enjoyMansplained inventing words. Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl, two of our favourite authors, created whole lexicons of new words as part of the worlds they imagined (see previous blog posts). One of the best-loved poems in the English language is Carroll’s nonsense rhyme that begins

‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe …’

You won’t find many of these words in a dictionary! But while some new words are playful nonsense, others move into the language and become part of everyday speech.

The American writer Rebecca Solnit didn’t coin the word mansplain herself. The word was inspired by Men explain things to me, her 2008 essay on gender and power. She described a situation in which a man explained something to her in a condescending manner. The word mansplain appeared on a blog shortly afterwards, and quickly gained popularity. It was included in The New York Times Word of the Year list in 2010 and was chosen as Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s National Dictionary) Word of the Year 2014. From the United States and Australia it travelled to Britain and was added to the online edition of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in March 2016.

Mansplain is an example of a portmanteau word (thank you, Lewis Carroll!) in which man is combined with explain. It is one of a number of neologisms – new words – that relate to gender characteristics and stereotypes, for example, man flu, man bag, manspreading. Can you think of any similar words? As well as man, other words relating to gender that combine to make compounds are bro, chick, dad, dude, mum and include the following. Can you guess what they mean?

  1. bromance
  2. chick flick
  3. dad dancing
  4. dude food
  5. mandals
  6. mumsy
  7. yummy mummy

Words like these show our creative approach to language, based on a love of wordplay. Many of these words are humorous, although some people find theMansplain 1m offensive, and mansplain has been criticized for being sexist. However, the role of a lexicographer is to track and record language as it changes and evolves, reflecting current patterns and developments. If a word is used often enough in written and spoken language, then it
is considered for inclusion in a dictionary. Not all the words in this post will make it to the next edition of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, but they help us to identify trends in language. Which new words will you add to your personal lexicon?


Answers:
1. bromance a very close friendship between men
2. chick flick a film that is intended especially for women
3. dad dancing dancing to pop music in an unfashionable way by older men
4. dude food food, especially with meat, that men like
5. mandals sandals (= light open shoes) for men
6. mumsy having a comfortable but dull and old-fashioned appearance
7. yummy mummy an attractive young woman who is the mother of a young child or children


About the author: Victoria Bull is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining Oxford University Press in 2004, she taught English to adults from many countries in London. She lives in the Cotswolds, where she enjoys reading chick lit while eating girl food.

Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)

Warrior

warrior_croppedJumpsquiffling whoopsy-splunkers* are not the latest new words to be added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary! Alas, we who work on dictionaries for learners of English don’t get to gobblefunk with words like our colleagues in Children’s Dictionaries. Lickswishy as these words may be, we can’t really claim that they have much of a life outside Roald Dahl’s stories. But it’s interesting that although he invented so many wonderful-sounding words, they are usually made up of recognizable bits of existing language, so that children don’t have too much difficulty in working out what they might mean.

And it’s true that most of the ‘new’ words we add to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary are not ‘new’ in the sense of ‘never-been-seen-before’. Very often they are new uses of old words, or new combinations of existing words. We’ve recently added a cluster of compounds to the OLD website, and these new expressions all contain the same old word.

class _____
culture _____
keyboard _____
road _____
weekend _____

The word that follows all of these is ‘warrior’ – hardly a 21st century concept, you might think, but popping up all over and causing us to add a new sense to the entry. We already have a historical definition:

(especially in the past) a person who fights in a battle or war

This had rather positive connotations – it goes with ‘brave’, ‘mighty’ ‘noble’ and ‘valiant’ but now we need to add a new sense which is much more disparaging:

a person who leads or takes part in a campaign for a political or social cause, especially in an aggressive way that other people disapprove of
These social justice warriors want to apply their politically correct standards and rules to others’ speech.

But why such an old-fashioned word as ‘warrior’? Well, I’m afraid I don’t know – that’s a bit out of my bailiwick. Oh yes – bailiwick – another old word that is enjoying a new life in a metaphorical sense. The corpus shows us that the historical use is now extremely rare – unless you live on the Channel Islands, you’re unlikely to hear it as in the meaning given in the native-speaker dictionary as:

the district or jurisdiction of a bailie or bailiff:
The warden had the right to arrest all poachers found within his bailiwick.

But over recent years it has become much more common thanks to increased use of the figurative sense, so that’s what we’re adding to the dictionary:

somebody’s particular area of responsibility or interest

So it’s not just eco-warriors who reduce, reuse and recycle. It seems we do it with words too – two words from Middle English alive and well in the 21st century.

*Jumpsquiffling, whoopsy-splunkers, gobblefunk, and lickswishy are all words invented by the children’s author Roald Dahl, and explained in the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary published in June 2016.


About the author: Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.


Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)

Brexit

2016-05-24 15_43_58-Brexit noun - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes _ Oxford AdvanUsers of the English language love to put two existing words together to make a brand new word. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years quite freely and prolifically. This can be as simple as adding words to other words to form a compound, for example a list of things to do is a to-do list. Often words are combined in more creative ways where parts of different words are combined in new ways. For example, a meal that comes between breakfast time and lunch time is called brunch. The word ‘mashup’ may be a relatively new word in English (it was added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary for the eighth edition in 2010), but the concept itself is as old as the hills!

Right now in the UK, there is much talk of Brexit: will Britain exit the European Union? We will know soon, as there is to be a referendum on June 23rd. The topic of whether the UK will remain or leave the EU is controversial, of course, and has divided politicians, political parties, and voters. The result may be too close to call – we will have to wait and see. The word Brexit already has an entry in the online edition of OALD, and you can hardly listen to a news bulletin here in the UK without hearing the word.

This blending of two words together to make one new word is one of the richest sources of new vocabulary in English, as you may have already read in our recent blog, which mentions some of the portmanteau words recently added to OALD online.

So, how good is your knowledge of blended words in English? Try this small test!

How are the two highlighted words in each line below combined to form a new word? The answers are at the bottom of the page, with links to the entries in OALD:

  1. a weather phenomenon that is a mixture of SMOKE and FOG
  2. a SEMINAR that is conducted over the Internet on the WEB
  3. the feeling of being ANGRY because you are HUNGRY
  4. a FRIEND who is not really a friend but is more of an ENEMY
  5. an eating utensil that is a combination of a FORK and a SPOON
  6. clothing for your legs that are LEGGINGS that look like JEANS

We will continue to keep our eyes and ears open for new blended words to add to OALD online – they are definitely here to stay! The question is, will Britain stay as part of the EU?

200433919-001


Answers:

  1. smog
  2. webinar
  3. hangry
  4. frenemy
  5. spork
  6. jeggings

About the author: Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager at Oxford University Press. Before joining OUP, she spent many years teaching students and training teachers.


Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)

Revenant

oup_60713If you are a life-long language learner like myself, up until recently you may never have heard the word ‘revenant’ before. Then towards the end of 2015 things changed. This was due to the movie The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who finally won his long-awaited Oscar for this role. I haven’t seen this film yet, though from the trailers I know that our protagonist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has to endure great hardship and that in some way or another, a bear is also involved.

But where does this word come from and what does it really mean?

Don’t worry, it’s not just us language learners who don’t have a clue about this word, which has gained popularity (and Google hits) at an incredible rate. It seems that many native English speakers face the same problem. This is probably the reason why a dictionary definition is shown underneath the title on the cover of the original book, and why there was a special cinema poster featuring the meaning of this word as well.

Of course it is not surprising that since the release (and success) of this film, the number of articles discussing the possible meanings of this word has skyrocketed. It was one of the new words added to the online edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in March 2016.

The word first appeared in English in the early 19th century and is of French, though originally of Latin, origin. The word ‘revenant’ is the noun of the present participle of the French verb ‘revenir’. The prefix ‘re-’ means ‘back’ and the base form of the word ‘venir’ means ‘to come’. However, there seems to be some disagreement about the meaning of the word – different dictionaries define a revenant as someone who has died and returned, or as someone who has returned as if from death. Our own dictionary definition is:

‘a person who has returned, especially one who is thought to have come back from the dead’

So is this word used to describe people who were merely thought dead or who have actually died and then returned? It seems to have been used both ways.

While Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film had a very narrow escape from, among other things, the aforementioned bear, many of the characters in Les Revenants – a French TV series – are previously deceased people who return to their small mountain town to continue with their normal lives as if nothing had happened. In fact the TV show is better known in English as The Returned, though this is really no less ambiguous to English speakers than The Revenants would be.

English is of course notorious for stealing (I mean borrowing) words from other languages. A huge proportion of English words, just like ‘revenant’, are of French origin. As a Hungarian, I am pleased to say that several Hungarian words have made it into the English language as well.

We Hungarians are very proud that most people use Biros for writing, that goulash has achieved international fame and that the Rubik’s cube is considered one of the best-selling toys in the world.

There are also several Hungarian dog breeds, such as the komondor, kuvasz, vizsla and puli, that English-speaking dog lovers may be familiar with. Komondors and pulis are rather odd-looking creatures, very similar to moving mops. Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, is the happy owner of a puli called Beast who even has his own Facebook account!

Are there many or any words in your mother tongue that are used in English?


About the author: a keen cinema-goer, native Hungarian Zsuzsanna Felvégi was an assistant editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department between 2015 and 2016. She worked mainly on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.


Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)

How new words are created

4.1.1‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”… You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

In this way, Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass tries to explain some unusual words to the curious Alice. Slithy didn’t pass into general use, but the idea of the portmanteau word certainly did, and has survived long after the portmanteau itself – a large heavy suitcase that opens into two parts – has fallen out of use.

A portmanteau word is created by combining the beginning of one word and the end of another and keeping the meaning of each. A less colourful term for it is a blend and it is one of the more ingenious ways in which new words can be generated. Among the hundred new words added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online this month, are hangry (angry because you are hungry) and frenemy (someone who is both your friend and your enemy). ‘Hack’ combines with ‘activist’ to give us hacktivist (a political or social campaigner who secretly looks at information on someone else’s computer system) and with ‘marathon’ to form hackathon (an event at which a large number of people work together to develop new software products in a matter of days).

Some new compounds are like portmanteau words but just take the beginning of each word: dash cam (dashboard camera) and EdTech (educational technology) are two examples. Short words can be absorbed whole into the new word and they can generate both portmanteau words and new compound words. There has recently been a spate of new informal words attempting to capture the habits and behaviour of men: manscaping (man + landscaping) is when a man shaves off all his body hair in order to try and look more attractive; to mansplain (man + explain) is to explain carefully to someone (as if she’s dumb) something that she already knows all about; and man flu is simply a bad cold that a man treats as if it were flu or something more serious.

Some people complain that these new ‘man’ words are sexist and it is wise to be aware that they may give offence. This does not stop people from using them, however. Manspreading has an interesting history. This is the practice of a man sitting on public transport with his legs wide apart, taking up more space than he needs and preventing other people from sitting down. This term became popular when New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority ran a poster campaign against the habit. The posters never used the term ‘manspreading’: they simply said ‘Dude! Stop the spread.’ It was the media, taking up the campaign, who called it ‘manspreading’ and the term stuck.

Other words that have been generating new compounds recently include warrior and capital. A ‘warrior’ is any kind of campaigner – it covers quite a wide range, from class warrior and culture warrior to keyboard warrior and road warrior. ‘Capital’ is a valuable resource in the form of skills or knowledge or influence, including human capital, political capital and social capital.

New words form in other ways too. Suffixes can be added to form new derivatives with a different part of speech. If something has impact, then it is impactful. Interdisciplinarity and interoperability are the qualities of being interdisciplinary or interoperable. But there doesn’t even have to be a suffix. When two geeks get together they can geek or geek out over computing tasks, technical stuff or anything that interests them. The noun has become a verb.

Existing verbs can generate new phrasal verbs. Even though telephones no longer have dials, the verb dial has stuck and now gives us dial somebody in (to a conference call) and dial something up (to order something by phone). Equipment may or may not be controlled by dials, but, regardless, you can dial down or dial up the volume, heat or power. These terms can also be used figuratively: He called on both sides to dial down the anger. Or you can be/get dialled in: As an actor, she really gets dialled into her roles.

Language is endlessly creative and generative. Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here. And look out for the next update, when the focus will be on idioms.


About the author: Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

On fleek

on fleek copy


oup_55764

‘Eyebrows on fleek!’ I said to myself approvingly this morning as I cast a final glance in the mirror before leaving for work. An odd turn of phrase, meaning in this context ‘perfectly groomed or styled’, but one which has exploded into the public consciousness in the past couple of years, thanks to social media services and to the Internet in general.

We’re familiar with the concept of videos, images and news stories ‘going viral’, which is to say spreading rapidly online, and the same can be seen happening with individual words and phrases. ‘On fleek’ owes much of its recent popularity to its use in social media contexts – Twitter, Instagram and the like – and in memes. It has even been picked up by celebrities and a couple of major US restaurant chains, which has no doubt further increased its currency.

But who can be credited with coining the phrase? There is some evidence in the Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang, of ‘fleek’ on its own, used to mean ‘nice’ or ‘awesome’, but these definitions were submitted several years ago. For ‘on fleek’ in its current form, it seems we have one Kayla Newman, known online as Peaches Monroee, to thank. In June of 2014, the Chicago teenager filmed herself declaring her freshly done eyebrows on fleek. She then posted the clip to Vine, a video sharing service, where it has since been played over 40 million times. Newman has said she had never heard of ‘on fleek’ before and it was just something that came to her at the time. She could surely never have anticipated how far and how fast the neologism would travel.

Even those of us in the English-speaking world who don’t document our lives in tweets, Instagram photos and Vine videos may well still have come across ‘on fleek’, although of course we may not all be inclined to use the expression ourselves or even understand its meaning. While ‘on fleek’ has infiltrated even the mainstream media and googling the term returns around half a million results, many people are perplexed by it, and it is often not so much being used as having its meaning, origin and rise to fame discussed.

Though the term is still most often used to compliment someone’s eyebrows or other aspects of their appearance, it is now also being applied more generally. Now just about anything, from pizza to someone’s personality, can be deemed ‘on fleek’. Dictionary editors track emerging trends in language through the use of corpora – huge databases of language – such as Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, which contains material going right up to March 2016. Items described as ‘on fleek’ range from the usual eyebrows, hair, clothes and wardrobe to food, sense of humour, Pope Francis’ American tour and plans for criminal justice reform.

It is, however, uncertain whether the phrase will secure itself a permanent place in the English language: slang does not always endure and it may only be a matter of time before ‘on fleek’ is superseded by a newer coinage. The question then is just how long will ‘on fleek’ remain on fleek?


About the author: Kallah Pridgeon, an avid social media user, is an assistant editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press where she works on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.


Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)