Herald Journal Columns
August 7, 2006, Herald Journal

The best (and worst) new words


By Ivan Raconteur

Staff Writer

Merriam-Webster recently announced the list of new words that have been added to the revised edition of its dictionary.

This is big news for one who earns a living by writing. Each year, I look forward to the list of new words. Words are tools, and it is important to have the best tools possible, and to use them correctly.

There are always some words on the list that I like, and others that I don’t like at all.

The award for the best new word for 2006 goes to “polyamory.” This slick little noun refers to the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.

There are plenty of other perfectly serviceable words to describe this situation, but there is something about the way “polyamory” rolls off of the tongue that makes me believe that it is going to be around for a long time to come.

Another interesting entry is “mouse potato,” a derivative of the 1990s term, “couch potato.” A mouse potato is a person who spends a great deal of time using a computer.

The future of this one is uncertain, since changes in technology could soon make it obsolete. Those of us who live on laptops have long since abandoned our mice.

There are a couple of items from the list that relate to personal appearance.

It seems like “unibrow” has been around for years, and it is nice to see that it has earned its place in the dictionary.

I am not convinced about “soul patch,” which refers to a small growth of beard under a man’s lower lip. It is difficult to say whether that one will stick.

There are some words that are so limited in scope that they are very unlikely to survive.

For example, “ollie” is a noun that refers to a skateboarding move, or a similar snowboarding move.

This seems a waste of an entry, since people who spend their time skateboarding or snowboarding aren’t likely to spend a lot of time studying the dictionary, and those who are not involved in these passtimes are unlikely to find a need for such a word.

Another new word that seems doomed from the start is “labelmate.” This refers to a singer or musician who records for the same company as another. Not a difficult concept, so why do we need a new word to describe it?

I haven’t decided what I think about “aquascape” yet. This is a scenic view of a body of water, or an area having a natural or constructed aquatic feature.

There are, of course, the usual array of words inspired by technology. Ringtone, spyware, and biodiesel are a few from this year’s list.

The words that are added each year are a key to understanding the age in which they emerge.

When old Noah Webster published the first dictionary of American English, “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language,” in 1806, the new words included “advocate,” “electrician,” “nutrient,” and “vaccinate.” All of these are alive and well today.

Each decade has given us words that illustrate the developments of the day.

The 1940s gave us “bikini” and “jet plane.”

In the 1950s, we added “desegregate,” and, unfortunately, “junk mail.”

The 1960s contributed “instant replay,” and “sexism.”

The 1970s were the dawn of “infomercials” and “video games.”

In the ‘80s, we saw the introduction of “ATMs” (automated teller machines), and “compact discs.”

The 1990s gave us “Web sites” and “car jacking.”

Unfortunately, there are some wonderful words that never make it into the dictionary.

Some of my personal favorites include “ginormous,” an adjective that describes something that is bigger than gigantic, and bigger than enormous.

“Chillax” is a wonderful little verb that means to chill-out, relax, and hang out with friends.

“Slickery” describes something having a surface that is wet and slippery, and, in some cases, icy.

I will continue to lobby to get these included in some future edition of the dictionary.

Language must continue to grow and change, or it will die.

In the process, we lose some grand old words that have fallen out of common usage.

We must also put up with some offensive new words that lack style and grate on the senses.

We don’t need to like them, but we have to accept them. The really bad ones will die off on their own.

Ours is a rich and beautiful language, and we must make a conscious effort to use it, or we will certainly lose it.