Thousands of words may have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in recent years, yet it would be a mistake to think that this is the limit of English. The OED, being a descriptivist endeavour, will always be lagging behind, and now more so than ever, as new technology permits new registers for language to be played with. Social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp create a written medium that has the speed and interaction of speech and they come with their own newly minted lexicons. Yet it is important for the OED to recognise the new words that emerge from these kinds of mediums of communication, partly as a resource for studying the language, but also to give words a sense of respectability – like a shield to hold off those pedants decrying the deterioration of English. As such, see this article as more of a personal view on changes to the language that I like, not a judgement on the new words.
One of the ‘new’ words that the OED listed recently is ‘omnishambles’, introduced by The Thick of It. It is an almost prophetic word (although, I fear it has always been politically applicable), perfect for a country which is, behind the scenes, staffed by “weirdos and misfits” – to quote Cummings. Yet, much of the word’s zeitgiestic nature is linked more to the rather oddly prescient inventions of The Thick of It than to its novelty. For in many ways, omnishambles has always been an English word – or at least has always been a word in potentia – in that it is a compound that naturally fits into the language and can be understood without prior knowledge.
This malleability is part of what makes English such an interesting language, providing a rich pool of near-synonyms. I doubt you noticed my use of ‘zeitgeistic’ in the last paragraph as it reads naturally like any other word, but it is not a word you would find in any dictionary. It is merely a word formed by following the normal patterns of English. Not all these ways of forming words happen in quite the same way, but what interests me more than these technical details are the social associations, and often criticisms, of such words. For instance, ‘invite’ as a noun is sometimes seen as a crass Americanisation, and may well have started in America, but ultimately it is no different from the normal noun ‘invitation’, which just happened to be formed from the verb much longer ago (in this case in Lain).
As such, I do love it when phrases are slated for being Americanisations – such as when Prince Charles’s use of -ize verbs was decried as a malign influence of Megan Markle – when they are simply more popular in the US or have fallen out of favour here. One brilliant example is the use of ‘gotten’, which is seen as a pointless alternation of ‘got’, perniciously imported by Americans. Yet it is far more interesting than that as gotten is not being used without care, instead it seems to be used in a slightly different way to got – as it originally was before it fell out of favour – and so adds flexibility of expression to the language.
This got me thinking about other aspects of English that have fallen out of common use, and which could be resurrected to good effect. I must say that I am a lover of using ‘whilst’ and ‘while’ to mean slightly different things, and still use ‘impregnate’ to mean ‘saturate’, as if I were still in the 19th century. However, I would not encourage you to follow suit as they are personal quirks of how I use language, and, as a matter of personal taste, should have no value judgement associated with them. Instead, resurrect any words or phrases that you enjoy, for language does not have to be utilitarian. Picking up older words can bring a sense of novel richness to language. For instance, ‘apricity’ (the sun’s warmth in winter) is very rarely used in current English, yet is the perfect word for the brief feeling of warmth on a clear February day, as the sun emerges from the grey clouds.
These older words, which have often almost died out, are a great source to add a sense of personal voice to writing as you play around with whatever quirks you enjoy. They can also be subverted and used in new ways. Language, and its registers, are so often used as an excuse for classism and racism, and there are far too many rules that seem to do little but exclude people, (e.g. the stupidly Latinate idea of not splitting infinitives) so don’t hold older English up as a standard, instead see it as a resource to be plundered. Create and twists words into new meanings. If you use a word and others like it, it will become a successful English word, for language is democratic, and belongs to all its speakers.
– Ed Bedford