x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A word on plain language

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has announced the latest 100 words added to its pages. They offer a snapshot of the contemporary world.

Shawarma is among the latest words to be added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
Shawarma is among the latest words to be added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

For anyone who was thoroughly underwhelmed by the Global Language Monitor's announcement in June of "Web 2.0" as the millionth English word, it will come as welcome relief that the latest 100 words added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary offer considerably more to chew on. Shawarma and haram have made their first appearance in the 2009 version from the revered Massachusetts publishing house, which has been producing dictionaries since Noah Webster's 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language.

Others get rather more caught in the throat: as a nod to the more financially impecunious times in which we now live, staycation (a holiday spent at home) has now entered the everyday lexicon. So has frenemy (someone who pretends to be a friend but is in fact an enemy). They have, according to John Morse, the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, become so popular that the dictionary couldn't ignore them. So popular? Surely these are words that have been used mainly in articles about new words. People don't actually say them, surely. But it must have been the same once with guesstimate - a personal bête noire which just failed to alert the computer spell check, so common has it become.

Predictably, and in the same vein as Web 2.0, a full fifth of the entries refer to technological innovation. Flash mobs (crowds that descend on a designated location to perform an event), has been permitted a slot for the first time. Though the concept has been around since 1987, the rise of e-mail, text messaging and Twitter mean they are now two-a-penny. Similarly, the rather more inventive sock puppet (a false identity used for deceptive purposes) originated in 1959, but the proliferation of the internet and its millions of faceless alter egos has given the term new life - and therefore a formal home in the dictionary. More literal terms include vlog (a blog containing video material), and webisode (a TV show that can be viewed through a website).

The green revolution has also had its mitts in the pudding, too. Now people with jobs designed to help the environment can be referred to as green collar (certainly catchier than environmental engineer and applied science technologist). While anyone who eats locally produced food - something all chefs and nutritionists have been championing for a while now - can enjoy being a locavore. Strangely, carbon footprint has only just found its way in after what seems like years of common usage.

Advances in medicine are also duly noted: neuroprotective refers to drugs that protect neurons from injury or degeneration; and cardioprotective to protection of the heart. "These are not new words in the language by any means," Morse told the AP, "these words are now likely to turn up in The New York Times, in the Wall Street Journal." And then there are the odd ones: memory foam refers to a new type of mattress that supposedly remembers the shape of your back. And it's been a surprisingly busy year for berries - both acai, a small, dark purple fruit found in Central and South America, and goji, a mildly tart fruit from a mainly Asian shrub, have earned prized spots thanks to their supposed superfood qualities.

Some words, says Morse, face years of waiting while linguistics experts monitor their usage to check they aren't just fads. "Most of these words have been around for a while," he says, "but for some reason they have grabbed the attention of editors this time." It remains to be seen whether anyone will actually start talking about going on a staycation or informing future hosts that they are a locavore. But if brunch, which was first introduced in Punch magazine in 1896 as a portmanteau word - a linguistic blend in which two distinct words are joined and their meanings combined - is anything to go by, we may need to chillax and jump on the bandwagon.