The arrival of the New Year provides us an excellent excuse to explore some of the newest words and concepts that have been added to the English language from our everyday vernacular – from deepfake and fan art to WFH and PPE.
Most of the words we use in the English language today are of foreign origin. Many basic words came from Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian and English still derives much of its vocabulary from Latin and Greek, but we have also borrowed (or stolen – we haven’t given them back!) words from nearly all of the languages in Europe.
How does a word become popularised in our language? It is often introduced by a newspaper journalist and picked up by the general public. If it is useful and used sufficiently, it will eventually appear in a dictionary.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant social and cultural changes was a catalyst for introducing a number of new concepts, if not words, such as ‘physical distancing’, the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical space between oneself and others, or ‘self-isolate’, to isolate or separate oneself from others.
Newspapers are quick to react to any new development, especially in science and technology. New words relating to computers and the Internet outnumber all others. Familiar words such as google, mouse, browser, spam, upload, tweet or broadband and expressions such as log on, boot up or text message
would have sounded like a foreign language 20 years ago.
Some words I only recently came across are keypal (online version of a penpal) and cybersickness (sickness caused by overuse of computers). The prefix cyber comes from cybernetics (the scientific study of machines and humans) which was invented in the 1940s from the Greek word kubernetes meaning ‘helmsman of a ship’ or steerer (ruler). Interestingly this is the same root as the word ‘governor’.
In 1996, New York magazine wrote: “Cyber is such a perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool — and therefore strange, spooky.”
Nowadays we know that cyber is a prefix meaning ‘relating to electronic communication’ – we’ve come a long way!
One recent example that caught my eye is ‘thirsty’. While not a new word as such, popular usage of the term has come to mean a strong desire for attention, approval, or publicity. Another is Merriam-Webster’s ‘truthiness’, defined as a seemingly truthful quality not supported by facts or evidence.
The world of finance has introduced many words and phrases. Cash cow is a metaphor for a dairy cow that produces milk over the course of its life and requires little maintenance. So a cash cow is an investment that, once the initial cost has been paid, continues to produce income for years to come. Dead cat bounce is a situation in which the price of shares rises a small amount after a large fall, sometimes before falling further. Stealth tax is a tax you are not aware of paying, as you pay it on a purchase rather than directly to the government.