Friday, 24 July 2009

The Rory Bremner of neologisms

As a newcomer to the dictionary business, I still have a wide-eyed fascination with where words come from and how their inclusion in the lexicon comes about. An avid basketball fan, I was reading an article on the NBA website, where an up-and-coming player was praised as being ‘telegenic’. I was pretty sure I knew what this meant, but I thought I’d better look it up just to be certain. Sure enough, the definition is ‘having a presence, appearance and manner suitable for television’. The etymology reveals that this is modelled on ‘photogenic’, which was fairly obvious, but I was interested by the wording ‘modelled on’. It struck me that this was quite a different approach from just using common affixes to alter the meaning of words. By that method, with the traditional meaning of the prefix tele- being ‘far, distant, over a distance’, one might come to the somewhat different conclusion that this young basketball player only looked good from afar.

I wondered if this was a common technique for producing new words and thankfully, Chambers Reference Online came to the rescue, by allowing me to search for all cases where ‘modelled on’ appears in the etymology field. Perhaps this could help solve a few ‘chicken and egg’ scenarios about the order in which words appeared. For example, when asked ‘Which came first, the gremlin or the goblin?’, I can now emphatically answer ‘the goblin’. Unsurprisingly, developments in technology have produced a few notable examples, with viaduct building on aqueduct, video echoing audio, escalator leading to travolator and hi-fi producing both ‘lo-fi’ and ‘wi-fi’. Technophiles and early adopters have even been nicknamed the ‘digerati’, using this technique to bring literati into the 21st century.

It’s likely that the main perpetrators of such economical coinages are journalists. Who else could have formed Glaswegian from Norwegian, precycle from recycle and pescatarian from vegetarian? I was recently introduced to the concept of ‘snowclones’, defined by Language Log’s Geoff Pullman as ‘some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists’ – a veritable swiss-army knife of neologistic shortcuts. The most famous example is probably X is the new Y which was first popularised in the fashion industry with phrases like ‘gray is the new black’ but has now been used ad nauseum for a variety of purposes, for example ‘30 is the new 20’, ‘quiet is the new loud’, ‘knitting is the new yoga’ and so on. But my favourite snowclone has to be X is the Y of Z, a good example of which is the saying ‘Edinburgh is the Athens of the north’ (although a quick search reveals it’s not the only city to deem itself so). Language columnist Mark Peters extensively documents the latest and most creative occurrences of this phenomenon at his site The Rosa Parks of blogs, which provides many happy hours of distraction. Find out what’s been described as ‘the Tom Hanks of vegetables’, ‘the batman of feminism’ or ‘the Sean Connery of payment systems’!

It strikes me that these new words and phrases are somewhat like impressionists, inventive yet always paying homage to what’s gone before. In fact, to use a snowclone, you might say they’re like the Rory Bremner of neologisms.

David Wark

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