Dictionaries Brim With New Words As Culture Goes More High-Tech
BOSTON — NOW is the time for a ``technoverb.''
Read the above sentence again. You are among the first to read a deliberately invented new word for the American vocabulary: ``technoverb,'' sparked by today's high-tech grammar spoken along the information highway and elsewhere.
Linguists and lexicographers say that new words and expressions are rolling into popular English usage in the US in greater numbers than ever before, even though official counts don't exist.
The energy of US culture and language is a virtual word factory.
Some of the new words popping out of American movies and TV are ``docutainment,'' ``teledrama,'' and ``colorize.'' In transportation and travel, by now everyone knows what the ``chunnel'' is, or a ``wide-bodied'' vehicle or airplane. And in journalism, if an article isn't ``unputdownable,'' people will turn the page.
``We constantly borrow words from other cultures,'' says David Jost, senior lexicographer for the American Heritage Dictionary, ``and this will go on forever in cultures.''
John Algeo, a linguistic historian, says new words can rarely be traced to their point of origin. ``New words are a little like many scientific discoveries,'' he says. ``They are made by several people at the same time. When there is a need for a new word or phrase, several people tend to create it.''
Look to recent dictionaries and various compilations of new words for an indication of American word fervor. In the 1992 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 16,000 new words and meanings were added in the 10 years since the 1982 edition. ``We'll probably add another 10,000 to 15,000 the next time around,'' says Mr. Jost.
The Oxford University Press published a small dictionary of 2,000 new words in 1992. There is the New Hacker's Dictionary, the Barnhart New-Words Concordance, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, and Harper Collins American Slang.
Because of the explosion of new words, somewhere, somehow, the word ``technoverb'' may have already sprung into use with eight other people west of the Mississippi three days ago.
``As our culture changes,'' says Mr. Algeo, who co-writes a column with his wife, Adele, on new words for the American Dialect Society, ``the language changes. We are in an extremely active and volatile period in our cultural history, particularly in technology, and this inevitably produces a change in the way we talk about things.''
Hundreds of new words jump out of today's technological and computer world, and from the worlds of medicine, food, business, and the sciences too.
The computer is speeding up the ability of lexicographers to study and track the history of words. ``The electronic revolution will not only have a profound effect on vocabulary, but also on our ability to monitor and record it,'' says Algeo. ``I recently completed a study on words [taken] from Spanish into English before 1900. Ten or 15 years ago I wouldn't have attempted this. The Oxford English Dictionary and other sources are now on CD-ROM.''
CD-ROM has virtually become a word used along with such other computer-generated words and phrases as hypertext, laser disk, cybertext, smart card, microprogramming, and downlink.
``A new word or phrase has to express something better than any substitute might,'' says Mr. Jost. ``It has to have all the right clangs,'' says Algeo, ``like the word `cyber.'''
The American Dialect Society has a contest each year for the ``new word of the year.'' Last year the winner was ``information superhighway,'' a phrase Algeo thinks is a little too long to endure. ``It will probably be reduced to something else,'' he says.
He predicts the prefix ``cyber'' will be this year's winner because it is a punchy, rich word (from cybernetics and cyborg) that can become cyberpunk, cybercast (as the next stage beyond telecast), cyberfood, a cybrarian (a librarian who uses computers), cyberspace (the information highway), cybersurfer, cyberschool, and cyberlawyer.
Sometimes new words come in several forms as variations-on-the-theme are tried in the marketplace until usage resolves the final word. Such indecision now swirls around how to describe nontraditional couples who are not married. Jost says ``partner'' is too vague, ``significant other'' is an all-purpose phrase, but ``domestic partner'' is gaining popularity with companies and organizations.
In the cross-pollination of words from black culture to white culture and back again, Geneva Smitherman, author of ``Black Talk: Word and Phrases from the Hood to The Amen Corner,'' describes ``Black talk'' as Africanized English or the black sound of English. She says some linguists have called it ``Ebonics,'' for a blend of the word ebony for ``black'' and ``phonics'' for sound.
The experts say that probably only a handful of today's new words will endure into the next century and beyond. ``Trophy wife,'' an unflattering term used sometimes by the media to describe O.J. Simpson's slain wife, probably will fade, just as many words with negative connotations fade quickly. ``Spindoctors'' may fare better because it describes a process as well as profession.
``English has a geographical reach now that is unprecedented,'' says Algeo, ``and that is another reason why vocabulary is increasing. English is used by more people for more purposes in more parts of the world than any language ever before.'' Call this ``Englishreach,'' which may or may not be a ``technoverb.'' CYBERSPEECH 101: A PRIMER OF NEW WORDS TUMBLING OFF TONGUES
* The United States, in large part because of its driving high-tech energy, creates new words constantly. Here are a few examples:
Information superhighway - an electronic information network, accessed by computer users.
Docutainment - when TV goes pleasingly factual.
Unputdownable - a must-read article.
Chunnel - new way Brits go underwater to Paris when they must, or vice versa.
CD-ROM - a memory system for storing books, manuals, visuals, etc., for reading on a computer.
Wide-bodied - refers to airplanes and vehicles.
Technoverb - a Holmstromism, for an action word for our high-tech age.