HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — "When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less." - Lewis Carroll
The English language is nothing if not flexible - taking words from other languages, modifying the meanings of existing terms ("Spam," anyone?), and even adding entirely new creations at such a rate that dictionaries simply can't keep up. But while it may take a few years for Webster's or the OED to declare a word 'fit to print,' the Web can take advantage of a faster reaction time, and trackers of the evolution of English can turn to The Word Spy for breaking news.
Possibly the most single-minded website ever reviewed in this space, the Word Spy exists almost exclusively to record changes in our collective vocabulary - some of which will become household words, while others will probably have such a short life that they'll only be remembered because of this site. (To be precise, despite the terminology used onsite, the Spy's collections also include multi-word terms and phrases, such as "parachute kids" and "dead cat bounce" - a rather graphic phrase to denote a temporary recovery in the price of a collapsing stock.)
Word Spy's basic purpose is complemented by a complete lack of extraneous content, and a basic, almost minimalist, layout. The site's home page features a Word of the Day, and offers links to most recent and most popular additions to the collection, an alphabetical archive, keyword search, and such diversions as a collection of the webmaster's favorite words, and a few of his own neologistic creations.
The next tab in the navigation bar offers a weekly Top 100 Words list, followed by a Subscription page for daily updates via email, Alphabetical- and Subject-based indexes, and Words About Words, a growing collection of word- and language-related quotations. ("From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put." - Winston Churchill)
There are (by a quick estimation of the alphabetical index) more than 1700 words and expressions in this collection to date. Some, such as "jury nullification" or "spin" will already be familiar terms. Others, though more recently brought into common use ("regime change"), are still well understood by most followers of the news, and in some cases, though you may never have heard the term in question ("Wal-Martian"), the meaning will be clear.
Things get more interesting when you find words for things you didn't know there were words for. (I wonder if there's a word for that?) Although you may not be familiar with the term, "time porn," you've almost certainly been exposed to it. (The phrase refers to fictional characters that have much more free time than most of us can ever hope to experience - the friends of Friends and the patrons of Cheers being prime examples.) Meanwhile, mens' compulsion to answer questions -even when they have no knowledge about the subject- is designated the "Male Answer Syndrome," and those who believe that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is exaggerated can accuse their opponents of "Iraqnophobia."
Each entry provides a definition of the term, along with one or more examples of its use from mainstream media. Earliest known uses are also included, and in some cases, background information and some history, or conjecture, about the entry's origins. The site's vertical index also changes every time a word is chosen, with the top portion of the index listing words and phrases related to the current entry, and the "Select Another Word" pull-down preselected to the appropriate alphabetical listing.
The Word Spy provides daily proof that English is a living language, and while the language may have been better off without some of these additions (please, "somewhereness"?), bad words can be as entertaining as the good ones, and the collection as a whole makes for a interesting package. Of course, you might want to digest the site in manageable doses - you don't want to end up with a case of Information Fatigue.
The Word Spy can be found at http://www.wordspy.com/.