Make Way for New Words

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The Oxford English Dictionary has an insatiable appetite for new entries: Every three months, it expands its inventory with dozens of words. A recent newspaper article, however, sensationalized recent acquisitions by selectively announcing a pile of pop-culture-inspired terms, missing the whole point of a dictionary.

The OED, like most other dictionaries, is descriptivist: It describes the state of the language. Some descriptivist resources weigh in on the formality of given entries, or their acceptability by a panel of language experts. The procedure for approving candidate terms for inclusion varies, as dictionary staffs differ on how long a term should have been in general circulation before it earns the stamp of approval.

But dictionaries do not include or omit words based on their quality. So, withhold your outrage when you read that you can now find such entries as bromance (a close friendship between two men), guyliner (eyeliner worn by a man), and mankini (a man’s one-piece bathing suit with shoulder straps). The apocalypse is not nigh. The OED is merely reflecting usage. (Well, OK, maybe the apocalypse is nigh.)

But wait, you argue. You wouldn’t be caught uttering or penning one of those words, inducted into the OED in 2011. My rebuttal? I deduce that you are over twenty-five years old. Well, yes, you might reply — as is a majority of the world’s English-reading population. That’s true, and many people born in the last twenty-five years would probably be embarrassed to employ one of these terms in conversation, too. But many folks of all ages know these words — they’re in our word-hoard, whether we choose to speak or write them or not. And though some may turn out to be ephemeral, the OED has rightfully catalogued them as being in current usage.

Here are a few terms added in the most recent round that I predict might have more staying power than those listed above:

Cybercast: an online audiovisual broadcast
Paywall: an online system that restricts access to those who pay a subscription
Super PAC: a political action committee with restrictions on funding as long as specific political candidates are not the recipients

In the What Took You So Long category are such terms as blacktop, a verb describing the process of paving a surface (the noun form already existed in the OED’s pages), earthlike (self-explanatory), and supertitle, the word for transcribed or translated text displayed above a stage or on a screen.

In the Department of Redundancy Department category is bimble, a synonym (primarily used in British English) for amble or meander. But English is replete with multiple words with the same meaning, so bring it on.

An honorable mention, for clever coinage, goes to aptronym, the word for a personal name usually humorously or ironically suited to the person, such as in the case of an undertaker named Grimm or a clumsy woman named Grace.

Whether you love or hate each of these terms or the hundreds of others being poured into dictionaries each year, keep in mind that although inclusion does enhance the possibility that they will be used more often, the realm of English is a free country, and you are welcome to accept or reject them in your own writing.

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14 thoughts on “Make Way for New Words”

  1. Is that homophobia I spy here? What’s wrong with bromance and the word for it (or a man wearing eyeliner, for that matter)?

  2. Great article! I enjoy receiving Daily Writing Tips.

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  3. I’m only 19 but I would never use words like guyliner in any of my writing. The apocalypse is most definitely nigh, if not already beginning. I love that the OED doesn’t discriminate against a word but honestly, that’s what we have the urban dictionary for. Yes, the latter is loaded with the silliest words you’ll ever see, but words like guyliner and bromance probably belong there. The problem is that young kids might see these words in a formal dictionary like Oxford and think they can use it in their formal paper. I shiver at the thought of some poor teacher working her way through a kid’s new pop-cultured vocab. That being said, I think we’ll survive. The beauty of the English language and all other languages is that they grow. Great post! And those aptronyms are pretty cool.

  4. Both are used, Steve. According to the article where I first encountered the word, “[a]n alternative term for the same phenomenon is Perfect Fit Last Names (or PFLNs for short).”

    Here’s the link:

  5. Lynn:

    I am straight but homophilic. Just for the heck of it, I chose from a list of recently acquired OED entries three examples pertaining to men. The terms all derive from popular culture, and I predict a short shelf life. As a pop-culture aficionado, I admire the modest but patent creativity that went into their coinage, but I also celebrate their ridiculousness.

  6. Not being personally au fait with the product in question, can anyone tell me whether there is any difference between “eyeliner” and “guyliner” other than the target market?

    With regards to the -phobic or -philic nature of ‘bromance’, I was under the impression that it was a non-sexual state. Otherwise it would just be a romance. (What’s the female equivalent of a bromance? A gal-liance?)

  7. Jon:

    Thanks for your request for clarity. Yes, guyliner is standard eyeliner as applied on men, and a bromance is a platonic (yet perhaps oddly passionate) relationship.

    Galliance — that’s good! (Though some may think the inspiration is dalliance, not alliance.

  8. @Chelsie and pop-culture… There’s a time and place for pop-culture usage and references. Shakespeare is full of pop-culture; Daniel Defoe, likewise; Henry Fielding – ditto; Charles Dickens – guilty too. As with most aspects of writing, everything in moderation, (or without moderation, but with deliberate intent).

    @Mark et al…
    I predict that guyliner will fade from usage – if the trend for male eyeliner disappears, it will make the term redundant; if the trend becomes more commonplace, it’ll just be eyeliner. After all, we don’t have terms like “ladytrousers”…

  9. I guess I’d have to question them quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Are these really words that get used by many people at all? I spend my time at at university, am around HS kids, watch new tv shows, and I”ve never heard any of these except cybercast, which hardly seems new, and super PAC, which doesn’t seem distinguished from a regular PAC.

    These sound like coinages from a game where players have to fabricate words and give them meanings (isn’t there a board game, or something, like that?) Mankini? Do those even exist? Guyliner? It isn’t even a thing. It’s eyeliner. Earrings remained earrings when men started wearing them. It seems that words that actually serve a purpose and emerge organically should be treated differently from those that are simply “clever” or amusing but aren’t actually used because they just aren’t needed.

    Just FYI , a quattracorn is a unicorn with 4 horns. Bambidextrous means using 2 deer, interchangeably. A lemoncade is a procession of bad cars. A skilleto is long, thin, pointy frying pan that somehow makes women’s legs look sexy when they cook…I’ll stop now.

  10. Venqax, mankinis do exist, even though they shouldn’t. Their existence provides comic relief more than anything (have you not seen Borat?). So sadly, I say yes, I have used the word ‘mankini’ more than once.

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