Diary

Jenny Diski

With New Year (anxiety of New Years past, dread of New Years future) breathing hot down my neck, and time itself moving along so fast that it seems to be about to lap me, Oxford University Press has produced a dictionary of two thousand new words.[*] I haven’t learned all the old ones yet. It’s very stressful. There ought to be a word for that second-half-of-life sense of time accelerating out of one’s orbit. The feeling of never quite catching up, of being always slightly then and never quite now, and out of breath with it. Or those nightmares of sitting for exams on subjects you never studied. But I haven’t found it so far, if you don’t include ‘ageing’. Here I am still trying to come to grips with black holes when suddenly I find that cold dark matter is on everyone’s lips. Being an inept visualiser, I am unable intuitively to grasp that a buckminsterfullerene is a ‘stable form of carbon whose nearly spherical, hollow molecule consists of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a shape with 12 pentagonal faces and 20 hexagonal ones (a truncated regular icosahedron)’. My heavens, ‘nearly spherical’, a ‘truncated regular icosahedron’, whatever happened to certainty and precision in science? Call it by its alternative name, footballene, and light comes flooding in (unless it is just my particular gift to be able to visualise a football).

In fact, this is a new New Words, being the second edition of the old New Words published in 1991. If you’re serious about keeping up, or OUP are serious about providing a record of popular language change, you’re going to have a problem. The first edition (now out of print) defines its purpose as ‘to take a snapshot of the words and senses which seem to characterise our age and which a reader in fifty or a hundred years’ time might be unable to understand fully (even if these words were entered in standard dictionaries) without a more expansive explanation of their social, political, or cultural context.’ This is an admirable purpose, and the special use of the word friendly, in the phrases friendly fire or friendly bombing, would speak volumes about our age to researchers in the future. In 1991 these were defined as: ‘coming from one’s own side; especially causing accidental damage to one’s own personnel or equipment.’ In the new edition, look for friendly fire, and you find nothing between Friday Wear and from hell. Perhaps the aim of the Dictionary has shifted between the two editions, so that the needs of the future are no longer taken into account. The second edition claims to ‘provide an informative and readable guide to about two thousand high-profile words and phrases which have come to public attention in the past fifteen or sixteen years.’ No mention of the future here, but 16 years ago was 1982 and what has happened to friendly fire? Do some phrases grow old before their time? There seems to have been a shift in policy: ‘A minority of items covered in the first edition claim a place here because their stories have continued to develop (BSE is an example of this).’ From which, let us hope we can assume, OUP have decided that modern warfare is a thing of the past.

Searching the early As in the first edition will give you, for example, AAA (see Triple A), ABS, ace, acid house, acid rain, active birth, accupressure, Adam and alternative, none of which appears in the new edition. The second edition offers abortion pill, acceptable face of, acid jazz, acquaintance rape, adhocracy and alternative fuel, none of which appears in the first edition. The words both editions have in common include abled, ableism, abuse, acquired immune deficiency syndrome and affinity card. Perhaps, in a hundred years from now, someone will want to write a historical novel about youth culture (yoof culture) in the Eighties; I’m afraid they will have to forego the use of Adam (‘In the slang of drug users, the hallucinogenic designer drug methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA, also known as Ecstasy’) from out-of-print 1991, though they could settle for love dove meaning the same thing in the second edition. Contemporaries, however, should beware. A dictionary is, by definition, no way to find out how to be hip (a word not found in either edition, but used, according to the SOED, by both Erica Jong and Shiva Naipaul in the mid-20th century). Be very cautious about casually referring to being loved-up to the eyeballs (‘intoxicated by the drug Ecstasy’) to your young people in the hope of gaining inter-generational respect. Also avoid suggesting a night of moshing (‘concert audiences express their involvement with and appreciation of the music through energetic physical activity in the mosh-pit’) if you want to retain any standing in any community at all.

The Dictionary of New Words is a form of entertainment (infotainment) rather than a serious research tool, though there are some (not very startling) indications of the concerns of the late 20th century to be gleaned from it. It looks, from a dip into the newly-invented or adapted vocabulary, as if modern society has innovated (pushed the envelope) primarily in the areas of computing, business and science, while new forms of old words have had to be coined in the field of good manners (political correctness).

However, derivations, especially from slang, are always intriguing. Like jokes, slang terms surface among young people or sub-cultures (a couple of 20-year-olds told me they were too old to know the current slang, which develops around schools or gangs), often seemingly out of nowhere, and suddenly everyone (under 20) knows them. Once they reach the ears of the over-twenties, you can be sure they have been supplanted and their histories and definitions begin to look ludicrous. Rad, of course, means ‘really good or exciting’. According to the Dictionary, it originated with Californian surfers in the Eighties to describes turn ‘that was at the limits of control’ and this use, specifically by surfers, developed via films, skateboarding and BMX biking into ‘the currently fashionable accolade’. It is ‘formed by abbreviating radical ... such slang terms of approval often get abbreviated to a snappy monosyllable – in the UK brilliant became brill’. It’s hard to read this history without finding a giggle bubbling up. This is a linguistic version of: if you’ve got to ask, you can’t afford it. (Accolade, incidentally, is defined by the SOED rather narrowly as ‘the salutation marking the bestowal of a knighthood, at different times an embrace, a kiss or, now the usual form, a stroke on the shoulder with the flat of a sword’, which permits a dream moment when Her Majesty announces: ‘I now proclaim you rad. Arise Sir Damien.’) Wicked (‘excellent, great, wonderful’), you may notice, has avoided becoming a snappy monosyllable. It is, we are told after the definition, ‘a reversal of meaning’, which seems obvious, but dictionaries have to do what dictionaries have to do. Its history is not entirely clear to the compilers: ‘There might first have been a catch-phrase or advertising slogan so good it’s wicked which was later abbreviated to wicked alone; however, it is not unusual for an adjective to be used as an “in” word in the opposite sense to its usual one among a limited group of people, and then pass into more general slang.’ Anyway, somewhere in the US, sometime in the Eighties. The entries finish with examples from the press or contemporary fiction, in this case a touch prissily from Time Out in 1989: ‘I’ve been to loads of Acid House parties. We have a wicked time but never, not never, do we take any drugs.’ So don’t worry too much if your youngsters use the word; they may be hopelessly out of date, but at least they’re not using. At the other end of the spectrum in 1989, Blitz magazine is cited for an example of the word awesome, among others: ‘That night I freebased a fractal of crack and blissed out on E. It was awesome, it was ace. It was wicked, bad and def. It was twenty quid. OUCH!’ Whoever ‘did’ all that is probably writing for the Spectator now. Def, incidentally, is not, I think, derived like yoof. New coinages for death are few and far between, although the medical profession has come up with gomer (an acronym for: ‘get out of my emergency room’, and used of ‘a patient regarded as unlikely through age and ill-health to respond to treatments, who is thus seen as unrewarding of effort’).

This is where the Dictionary is really helpful: in teasing apart the acronyms that comprise a large sector of new words in science and computing. Probably about as much as any non-specialist needs to or can know is given for the word MACHO as a ‘compact object of a kind which it is thought may constitute part of the dark matter in galactic haloes’, but it’s entertaining to be told that it is a happy formation of ‘massive astrophysical compact halo object’ to partner WIMP (‘weakly interacting massive particle’). This is not just language growing in its own soil, but evidence of the comforting fact that scientists, as well as discovering things we can’t see, also delight in playing language games. Perhaps there’s a university department somewhere specially devoted to throwing initials around to arrive at satisfactorily human new names for unseen forces. It’s not just physicists, the biologists are catching up: GIFT is a technique for helping infertile couples to conceive via ‘gamete intra-fallopian transfer’. However, they lose creativity points with a related technique, ZIFT, or ‘zygote intra-fallopian transfer’. Computing, not altogether surprisingly, seems entirely to lack wit in the formation of its acronyms: LAN, Bit, rom, ram, JPEG, HTML all point dispiritingly to the anoraksia of their coiners, though snail mail has a certain charm.

In the world of politics, it is some comfort to find ‘Thatcherism’ missing from the new wordlist, though Thatcheronomics suggests we haven’t heard the last of the woman. But what to make of the entry Blairism so soon? At the time of the Dictionary going to press, it seemed to mean ‘a willingness to combine a concern for social issues with an acceptance of many aspects of market-based economies’. At this stage, I’d be tempted to drop the first part of the sentence and wait for the third edition of new words to finalise the meaning. Islington man is in (‘a derogatory term for a middle-class, socially aware person of left-wing views, a resident of North London, and in particular the borough of Islington’ – so not Tony Blair then), though with a recommendation to use the formulation Islington person.

Things aren’t looking good for the businessman, either. He has had to add karoshi (‘death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion’) to his three-word Japanese vocabulary (karaoke is in, but no sign of sushi in either edition). Power breakfast, power dressing, power lunch and power nap take care of the executive’s day, but things, I believe, won’t be really up to speed until she can set up a power tea beyond the glass ceiling with the members of Emily’s list.

My least favourite new use of an old word is abuse, to provide a euphemism for large numbers of disparate behaviours. Child abuse simultaneously covers ‘cruelty’ and ‘incest’, two powerful words not much seen these days. Old age abuse and granny abuse suffice for maltreatment of old people. Substance abuse makes the word addiction redundant. Laxative abuse politely covers the grimness of the life of someone suffering from anorexia or bulimia. In the sprawling use to which the word has been put, there is no sense of proportion (racket abuse is what used to be known as bad temper) or syntactic logic (‘safety abuse where it is not the safety that is being abused, but those safeguards put in place to ensure it’). A new one on me refers to all that pleasurable eating between meals that I had formerly called ‘greed’ or even ‘appetite’, which now turns out to be snack abuse. For nearly all these abuses, helplines and counselling are doubtless available, though the more general human problems of cruelty, addiction, sexual predation and mental illness are not so simply fixed or addressed.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, it is clear that the main pleasure to be derived from the Dictionary of New Words is the satisfying evidence it is likely to provide of language gone to the dogs. Not that it has, of course. Some of the new words are instructive (Maastricht, not entertaining, I grant, but informative), useful (where would I be without cook-chill?) or amusing (slaphead for ‘bald’, I’m afraid). And all the old words remain available in the grown-up dictionaries, ready to be used by anyone intent on making themselves clear, rather than rad.

[*] Dictionary of New Words, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford, 366 pp., £14.99, 1997, 0 19 863152 9).