Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just Because You Can....

Name the last time you used the word “alacrity” in conversation, dear reader.
How about “supercilious”?
What about “staycation”? “Frenemy?”

As I type these last two, a little red worm burrows under the neat Times font on my computer screen. Little does my outdated laptop know, staycation and frenemy were both recently added to the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and I did spell them correctly. The Collegiate Dictionary used to separate itself from Webster’s Regular Dictionary by being chock full of words you needed to know to get into college. Now it is chock full of words college kids made up.

Of course, language adapts. Especially in our electronic society, word meanings shift and change with all the fluidity of a bumper car ride; I have explained “gay,” aka homosexual, to my grandparents, and “gay,” happy, delighted, bright, to my kids. Our tendency in recent years has been to imbue our language first with made-up words or phrases, use them for a while, then remake them with a sense of bitter irony or distain. “OMG” may have been clever text when first used; now it represents a self-deprecating, false or sarcastic enthusiasm.

This makes me doubt the staying power of “staycation.”

The head honcho guy at Webster’s, or at least the guy speaking to news outlets, claimed that certain words gained such widespread use in recent years they could not be ignored. Crocs sandals gained widespread use in recent years, too, and a dedicated band of us continue to ignore them. I bet you even money dear reader that within a few years Crocs will be synonymous with the Termites sandals craze of the 1980’s. Good riddance. (Even though Termites were very sexy for a 6th grader who wasn’t even allowed to wear lip gloss).

Words are not shoes. My question runs thusly: If we’re going to be making up words and tossing them into bona-fide dictionaries, can we come up with something a little less lazy than “staycation”? Most of the new words added consist of two perfectly fine if somewhat ordinary words brutally torn asunder, then jammed back together and sent out into the world like a soulless monstrosity. Words like “vlog” and “webisode” demonstrate our disturbing lack of collective creativity. Rather than digging a little deeper for some royal nugget of English’s French or Spanish roots, some buried gem of Latin syllable to polish up and refine to say exactly what we mean it to say, we pick up a few stray easy bits right off the top of our language. We’re cannibalizing what little vocabulary we use.

For a few months, the words wander through popular culture, showing up on “The Colbert Report,” in status updates for Facebook, and then, eventually, making their way into “real” media like “even the New York Times,” according to the eager Webster’s guy. If their plan is to continue to rate that paper as a pinnacle of proper language use, perhaps they should stop feeding it zombie-like versions of hybridized words. Some may say I’m too sensitive on the subject; that in fact, this is just part of the “green collar” culture (another added term) and does a fair job of reusing and recycling; words are renewable resources.

No. I prefer to see this doctoring of our words as short-sighted. Call it “Frankencabulary.”

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