Dictionaries Brim with New Words as Culture Goes More High-Tech

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Dictionaries Brim with New Words as Culture Goes More High-Tech


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


NOW is the time for a "technoverb."

Read the above sentence again. You are among the first to read a deliberately invented new word for the American vocabulary: "technoverb," sparked by today's high-tech grammar spoken along the information highway and elsewhere.

Linguists and lexicographers say that new words and expressions are rolling into popular English usage in the US in greater numbers than ever before, even though official counts don't exist.

The energy of US culture and language is a virtual word factory.

Some of the new words popping out of American movies and TV are "docutainment," "teledrama," and "colorize." In transportation and travel, by now everyone knows what the "chunnel" is, or a "wide-bodied" vehicle or airplane. And in journalism, if an article isn't "unputdownable," people will turn the page.

"We constantly borrow words from other cultures," says David Jost, senior lexicographer for the American Heritage Dictionary, "and this will go on forever in cultures."

John Algeo, a linguistic historian, says new words can rarely be traced to their point of origin. "New words are a little like many scientific discoveries," he says. "They are made by several people at the same time. When there is a need for a new word or phrase, several people tend to create it."

Look to recent dictionaries and various compilations of new words for an indication of American word fervor. In the 1992 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 16,000 new words and meanings were added in the 10 years since the 1982 edition. "We'll probably add another 10,000 to 15,000 the next time around," says Mr. Jost.

The Oxford University Press published a small dictionary of 2,000 new words in 1992. There is the New Hacker's Dictionary, the Barnhart New-Words Concordance, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, and Harper Collins American Slang.

Because of the explosion of new words, somewhere, somehow, the word "technoverb" may have already sprung into use with eight other people west of the Mississippi three days ago.

"As our culture changes," says Mr. Algeo, who co-writes a column with his wife, Adele, on new words for the American Dialect Society, "the language changes. We are in an extremely active and volatile period in our cultural history, particularly in technology, and this inevitably produces a change in the way we talk about things."

Hundreds of new words jump out of today's technological and computer world, and from the worlds of medicine, food, business, and the sciences too.

The computer is speeding up the ability of lexicographers to study and track the history of words. "The electronic revolution will not only have a profound effect on vocabulary, but also on our ability to monitor and record it," says Algeo. "I recently completed a study on words {taken} from Spanish into English before 1900. Ten or 15 years ago I wouldn't have attempted this. The Oxford English Dictionary and other sources are now on CD-ROM."

CD-ROM has virtually become a word used along with such other computer-generated words and phrases as hypertext, laser disk, cybertext, smart card, microprogramming, and downlink.

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