Sunday, March 17, 2013

Our Constantly Evolving Language – Love it or Hate it?

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor and craft-of-fiction writer

The English language is always in a state of flux, and to me, that’s a good thing – it means it’s dynamic, not static; vibrant, not stagnant. It would be ridiculous if the language wasn’t keeping up with our constantly changing world. So as technology is continually being updated, new words need to be immediately coined to keep up, with jockeying among wordsmiths as to which newly coined term really nails it and how it should be spelled. Then watch the noun morph into a verb, the word change spelling (e.g., two words become one or hyphenated), or get pushed out in favor of a newer, better one.    

Coining New Words

It’s kind of fun to watch the language change/transform with popular usage. For example, “internet” started out with a capital “I”: “Internet.” What’s up with that? We don’t capitalize terms like television, telephone, email, mail, text message, faxes, movies, newspapers or other means of communication, so why would internet need a capital? Fortunately, it seems logic has won out, as “internet” seems to have pretty much been downsized to a lowercase “i”, which makes so much more sense. Similarly, “Web site,” coined in 1992 according to Merriam-Webster, is now spelled as one word, without the cap: “website.” Makes sense to me! And “email” started out being spelled “e-mail” but the hyphen seems to have pretty much disappeared in popular usage. Smoother without, I think. And e-book (E-book, eBook, ebook) is still in a state of flux – which do you prefer? And why? Same with e-reader, etc.

According to Wired magazine’s Jargon Watch editor Jonathon Keats, the relatively new term “spam,” which has come to mean the unwanted, junk email that clutters our in-boxes, came from the brand name for Spam luncheon meat, which many consider to be junk food.

But is that really where the term came from? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has a different take on how we started using “spam” to mean junk or unwanted email or promotions: 

"spam: unsolicited, usually commercial, e-mail sent to a large number of addresses. Origin of 'spam' – coined in 1994, from a skit on the British television series Monty Python's Flying Circus, in which chanting of the word 'Spam' overrides the other dialogue."

Another fairly new term is “crowdsourcing,” which combines the word “crowd,” a random collection of people, and “outsourcing,” a corporate practice of sending jobs abroad where wages are lower. It refers to a process where many people are solicited to complete a project, solve a problem, vote on an issue, etc. Wikipedia is also an example of crowdsourcing.

"Verbing" – Creating a Verb out of a Noun

And new verbs are constantly being coined from the noun form, like “googling” information to research a topic. (Evolving from “Googling” to “googling.”) Other verbs recently created from nouns are: to “friend” or “text” or “message” someone. Not to mention “defriending” and “unfriending.” Other verbs coined in recent years from nouns include partying, parenting, critiquing, trending, gifting, interfacing, bookmarking, dialoguing, tasking, accessing, impacting, actioning, progressing, showcasing, workshopping, transitioning, and even inboxing. Some seem right on, while others seem almost ridiculous to me, like using “signaturing” instead of the perfectly good, shorter “signing.” And I'm not crazy about “inboxing”… maybe it’ll grow on me.

How about verbs coined from the names of body parts?

In a single work day, we might head a task force, eye an opportunity, nose around for good ideas, mouth a greeting, elbow an opponent, strong-arm a colleague, shoulder the blame, stomach a loss, and finally hand in our resignation.  - From “What is Verbing?” by Richard Nordquist

Nancy Tracy, in her article, “Are Verbs the New Nouns?” gives her take on this fast-growing phenomenon:

“From a Western perspective, verbs are active do-ers while nouns are sedentary couch potatoes. It's no wonder that in a society that favors movement and productivity, verbs are gobbling up nouns like so many dot-consuming Pacmen. Not only do we enable this linguistic alchemy, we actively encourage this practice as the language around us adapts to mirror the attitudes and biases that shape our worldview.”

Finally, a popular cartoonist’s take on this trend:

Calvin and Hobbes once discussed verbing in Bill Watterson's great comic strip:

Calvin: I like to verb words.
Hobbes: What?
Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed. . . . Verbing weirds language.
Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

How about you? What do you think of these trends? Creative or an abomination? Can you think of other hot-off-the-press terms I’ve missed here? Do you like them or dislike them, and why? And how do you spell “e-book”? “ebook”? Or…?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, March 2013

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books (& e-books) to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling  Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power, both in e-book & print. Upcoming book: Immerse the Readers in Your Story World. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter, and read her blog posts on The Kill Zone and Resources for WritersTo subscribe to Jodie’s "Resources for Writers" newsletter please click on this link.



  1. As writers, we love playing with words. The greatest neologizer was Shakespeare. (I think I made up a word.) Verbing is an old and powerful rhetorical device. (For more on this - and exercises - see Word Hero by Jay Heinrichs; there's also a website with tests. Great fun.)

    It's really important for us to think about words - meta-wording - and a post like this serves to get us out of the linguistic boxes we trap ourselves in.

    1. Thanks for your informative comment, David! I'll have to check out Word Hero by Jay Heinrichs!

  2. I love new words and connecting them to their meaning. It's important to have an editor who stays on top of these things because they are rapidly changing.

    I also love old words used in different ways. I've mentioned here in the past that I thoroughly enjoy a writer who sends me to the dictionary, and when I read the definition I often see where the author has been very "edgy" with her use of that particular word. As opposed to some who dislike this, it energizes me even if it means leaving the story for a little side trip.

  3. Thanks for your comments and insights, Peg. I think it's ideal if an author can use a new word or push an existing one to its limits or even forge new ground with a word, but use it in a context that the readers can figure out what it means without actually having to put down the book and go to the dictionary.

  4. I love our evolving language, but it's not moving fast enough for me. I look forward to the day we can stop writing/saying the awkward "his or her" and just write "their" if we're not specific or sure about the gender of the person.

    And in my opinion, putting capitals in ebook is ridiculous! It's like writing tRee or rOad. I hope people (and publishers) get over it.

  5. I absolutely agree with both of your points, LJ!

    BTW, compared to French, which is really conservative about change, English is really quite flexible. But it could be even more so, and the awkward "his or her" is a great example!

  6. English managed to avoid (or abandon?) the masculine/feminine nouns that French/Spanish/etc use, but we still can't think of that gender-neutral way to refer to a person. "They/their" is our go-to choice, but it's a plural term, which kind of makes it sound like we're describing someone with multiple personalities - LOL.

    What I'm finding is that I'm taking up some of the slang my son uses when he talks to me. I'm having a hard time saying "probably" these days, thanks to my son's pronunciation of "prolly." And instead of saying that I totally understand something, I'm given to telling people, "I totes get it."

    Quick. Someone save me.

  7. "They" and "their" seem to be slowly gaining some acceptance as alernatives to "He or she" and "His or her", but they're still not ideal, as they do and still will mean plural. Some people tried to introduce "h/she" and a few others which I forget right now, but so far none of them have really caught on. Anybody got any ideas?

    And I know what you mean about picking up our kids slang! I was just mentioning on Facebook that I often get a one-letter text or email back from my sons: "K" (as in OK)! Like it's too much work to put the "O" in there, too! LOL

  8. Well, hello… working on my current manuscript and lo and behold… skyping. My spell-checker accepted Skype without a problem. But skyping? Not so much.


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