Are new words the refugees of the English language?

Recombobulation and incentivize —#turnthemback or #letthemstay?

wordsSesquipedalian is one of my favourite words. I also love onomatopoeia which is sesquipedalian, as well as couth which is not. Terpsichorean is new to my top ten, jostling for space up there with tartle. And yes, I am a logophile.

There are plenty of words I DON’T like.

My least favourite word is incentivate and its bastard children incentivise – and even worse, incentivize. (I blame John Howard and the Liberal Party campaign of 1987.) I also hate irregardless, guesstimate and nother (as in ‘a whole nother’).

Common spelling mistakes and inappropriate apostrophes drive me crazy. Potato’s anyone? Made up words especially internet- and text-speak like LOL are my nemesis. A wise man once said: ‘What um is to public speaking, LOL is to typing. And the people who say it out loud. Oh, the people who say it out loud. They are damned.’

The world is made up of two sorts of people: the #turnthembackers and the #letthemstayers.

In the former camp is Australian poet Dorothy Greene. She once wrote: ‘You are told by experts that language has to change. To which the only retort is that it does not necessarily change for the better and there is no reason it should change overnight because some illiterate ass has a microphone in front of his mouth.’

France has the ultimate in #turnthembackers.

Members of the Académie
Members of the Académie

The Académie Française is comprised of 40 ‘immortals’ – French intellectuals who like to play dress ups and who can only resign by dying. I suppose that’s why they’re called immortals. Their raison d’être is to safeguard the purity of the French language and weed out intruders like ‘computeur’ and ‘Walkman’ in favour of ‘ordinateur’ and ‘baladeur’.

In pre-internet times, the nearest equivalent to the Academy in the English-speaking world was the dictionary editor. Hard copy dictionaries had word limits. They selected new words and deleted ‘obsolete’ words based on correct grammar and spelling. They considered terms like ‘must of’ instead of ‘must have’ as abominations worthy only of the lexicographical scrapheap.

On the opposing side are the #letthemstayers.

Anthony Burgess was an early adopter of new words
Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) was an early proponent: ‘Language is not an intellectual construct but the property of the people. No one is better than anyone else at it.’

The #letthemstayers include lexicographers, writers, bloggers and alternative word nerds. They base their attitude towards new words on usage rather than grammatical correctness. They applaud the introduction of words like hashtag and selfie. These laissez-faire #letthemstayers don’t mind borrowed foreign words like laissez-faire being misspelled. Or undergoing changes of meaning. They welcome the mongrel nature of the English language with all its inconsistencies and illogicalities.

The #letthemstayers don’t even care too much about spelling. They believe rationalising spelling to make reading easier for children. Like the old imperial measurements such as rods, poles and perches, correct English orthography makes it so much harder for children and for non-English speakers to learn.

So where should we stand on the scale from pedantry to anarchy?

There’s a little part of me that applauds the Académie Française, but my research has led me to question the status quo. I have come to accept that inclusivity in all things is positive. And it seems I’m not the only hard-line #turnthembacker to soften my stance. This year the Académie Française has allowed the alternative spelling of certain French words to facilitate learning. The French word for onion has changed from oignon to ognon. It also approved the dropping of the circumflex on the î and the û in French school books where it doesn’t change word meaning or pronunciation. Sacré bleu!


The French being the French, there has been some uproar about this. Social media users started a #jesuiscirconflexe campaign. And the far right has accused the socialist government of ‘dumbing down’ the country.  This indicates a more relaxed contemporary attitudes towards lexicography in general. And it might surprise you to know that this process has been going on for hundreds of years.

Take for example the word ‘president’ meaning ‘one who presides’. It was originally intended to be low-key. The holder of that office in the US was not meant to get above himself. Now over 140 countries have borrowed the term, so full of gravitas is this once-humble word.

Even dictionary editors are also showing strong signs of laisser-faire-ism.

The Macquarie Dictionary intorduces new words if they are in common useVeronica Morgan of The Macquarie Dictionary maintains its role is to include language in common use. She cites the example of versing vs versus: ‘Versing was created by children who are now adults’ she says. ‘It’s an example of a change in the language dictated by common usage and is now included in the main body of the dictionary.’ In addition, the people vote on all new words in the Macquarie Dictionary. In the latest round of votes, the People’s Choices and the Committee Choices coincided in 9 of the 15 categories. Winners included the overall Word of the Year – captain’s call – and the fashion Word of the Year – lumbersexual.

The American Dialect Society is a group of lexicographers who meet once a year to vote on their Words of the Year. Their 2008 Creative Word of the Year is recombobulation. A ‘recombobulation area’ designates the area just past the security check-in. It is jostling for position as my new favourite word. In the tradition of ‘use it or lose it’ I drop it into conversation whenever possible. It’s part of my one-woman campaign to introduce it into common usage.

The #turnthembackers continue to fall back on indignation and style guides but the tide seems to be turning in favour of the #letthemstayers.

Unlike French, which is almost entirely based on Latin and has only half the number of words, the English language is a rich unruly mixture. Its  influences range from the Celts to the Vikings to the Asian sub-continent and beyond. It’s this open-door policy that makes English the rich and diverse language it is.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.