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Verbal Energy

Three new words of the summer – so far

A word that’s suddenly hot among kids, a word that gives us a name for something we’ve done for thousands of years, and a word just made up from scratch, so there.

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    'Minions' is co-directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda.
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Even with the eyes of 95 percent of one’s fellow passengers riveted to the screens of their gadgets, summer travel can still be a way to pick up new words.

So it was the other day. En route to the car-rental counter, I overheard a young girl say something to her mother about “minions.” 

Minions? Isn’t that how grownups refer contemptuously to the underlings of their adversaries? How does an 11-year-old know that one?

But of course she was talking about the new movie. The Hollywood Reporter explains, “The dungarees- and goggles-wearing yellow sidekicks from the two ‘Despicable Me’ films are upgraded to leading-minion status in the appropriately titled ‘Minions.’ ” 

Minion came into English around 1500. Samuel Johnson defined it as “a favorite; a darling; a low dependent; one who pleases rather than benefits.” It’s from the French mignon, which today covers the same ground as “cute” or “nice” or “sweet.” (Your filet mignon is a “cute steak.”)

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that minion was “used 16c.-17c. without disparaging overtones.” It’s gone downhill since. Macmillan, for instance, defines minion as “an unimportant person who has to do what a more powerful person tells them to do.” Not what you want on your résumé.

The next new word of the summer is facepalm. I’d seen a couple of subway ads for some product; both followed the pattern “Product X: Benefit A, Benefit B, and no Downside C.” In one of the ads, Downside C was “facepalms.”

I had no clue. But then I saw this from Kerry Maxwell on Macmillan’s “Buzzwords” blog: “[T]here’s [a] gesture which you’ll doubtless be familiar with, that expression of dismay, frustration or embarrassment conveyed by moving our hand up against our face. Though we may recognize it, how do we describe it? Well now there’s finally a single term of reference for it: the word facepalm.” 

If minion is an old word getting new currency, and facepalm a new word for something people have done for thousands of years, are there totally new words made up from scratch? Sometimes.

How about dench? Rap artist Lethal Bizzle coined it a few years ago to mean “excellent.” It’s caught on, and Macmillan has included it in its online dictionary. And it did so, editor in chief Michael Rundell said, on the word’s “own merit, and not because a celebrity made it up.” 

Over at Bustle.com, Lucia Peters called dench “my favorite slang word in the entire history of slang,” and traced its origin to actress Judi Dench. 

Not so fast, counters Ms. Maxwell at Macmillan. Until 2012, dench “had never existed as a meaningful string of letters in the English language.” The link to the actress is “fortuitous, but purely coincidental.”

Bustle.com, by the way, calls itself “a new force in media that delivers everything you want to know, see, and read – right now.” My translation: Bustle provides online “content” for people engrossed in their tiny screens.

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