I’ve taken the title «A Rhapsody of Words» from Shakespeare because he was the greatest creator of new words in the English language. Scholars have worked out that he is responsible for some 1700 new words. Here are just five of them: «disheartened» — «gloomy» — «laughable» — «perusal» — «quarrelsome». I think if those had been the only ones, it’s not a bad effort. And they mean in the same order: «depressed» — «miserable» — «ridiculous» — «reading through» and «bad tempered».
Of course in Shakespeare’s time nobody thought of compiling a list or even a dictionary. We had to wait some 250 years till after his death before the Scottish philologist, James Murray started work on what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1879 Murray sent a nationwide appeal out to men and women to help him with his dictionary. They were to send to him on slips of paper any words that they had come across in papers, journals, novels and to indicate where they came from. Some 400 people responded and Murray set up a so-called «scriptorium» in his garden to enable him to begin his dictionary. But it was a long laborious task and it wasn’t until 1884 that the first instalment came out thanks to the efforts of his devoted team who were helped in the more mundane jobs by some of Murray’s eleven children.
But the question is when does a new word get entered into the dictionary? It has to be qualified and the best qualification is long life. If it has survived a considerable length of time, it may well be accepted. Let’s look at three words that have lasted some 20 years: «jobsworth» is a noun that describes a very small-minded official who insists on following the smallest and least important regulations. It comes from the sort of response you would get if you asked an official to forget about some small requirement. This sort of person would say: «It’s more than my job’s worth and I couldn’t possibly do that.» — «Hands-on» is an adjective describing practical use of for example computing.
If you describe your experience in that field as «very hands-on», it means you know what you’re doing because you know the practice as well as the theory. Then «glitch» started life as American slang but has now become respectable and means a technical error usually in electronic equipment that causes equipment to go wrong. It’s a nice friendly word suggesting what has happened isn’t your fault but is just one of those things that has occurred by chance. You could hear that word used recently to explain the loss of power in North American cities a few weeks ago.
There seem to be several new words that are connected with violence and crime: «road-rage» «ram-raid» «serial-killer». The first describes what happens when somebody loses their temper when driving a car and deliberately crashes into other cars or generally causes violence on the roads. When I first started driving a car, we used to call this bad driving but now we have a special word for it. The second one involves driving straight into a shop or bank in a heavy vehicle with a view to stealing jewellery or money. The trouble with that or probably the good thing about that is sometimes the driver has been so successful in ramming the vehicle that he can’t get out. And the last one is the theme of many detective stories on TV used to describe someone who commits murders one after the other.
When a business wants to reduce the number of people it employs, the spokesman doesn’t say we are «sacking» a number of people but rather we are «downsizing» — that sounds so much better unless of course you’re one of those who’s lost their job. And with no job you could also have problems with paying the rent or paying the mortgage on the house you’re buying. Worst of all you could find that the money you have borrowed to buy could be more than the house is worth if house prices have fallen. You then have what is called negative equity. If you take comfort by eating and start to get fatter and fatter people will call you a «salad dodger».
But back to Shakespeare I wonder what he would make of it all. One thing is for sure, he certainly hasn’t yet reached his sell by date — and that’s an expression for you to decipher!
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: New use of old word