New words, like any kind of fashion, take off in our society for various reasons, a linguist has said.
Macquarie Dictionary is calling on the public to vote in its inaugural Word of the Decade competition. It has has been running Word of the Year since 2006.
Macquarie Dictionary senior editor Victoria Morgan said the Word of the Year competition is the one time of year where the public can have their input.
“[The word chosen is] something that usually takes the public’s interest or the country’s interest to a degree that it just sort of overwhelms the year,” she told Hope 103.2.
Unlike Word of the Year, which is selected by both the public and a committee of language specialists selected by Macquarie Dictionary, Word of the Decade will be determined purely by the public.
“To get a group of half a dozen language people together is not nearly as interesting as opening it up to the wider public,” Ms Morgan said.
How new words are added to the dictionary
“Regardless of whether we agree with it or not, or like the term or dislike it, it’s really the dictionary’s job to record language as it’s being used.” – Victoria Morgan, Macquarie Dictionary senior editor
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The shortlist for Word of the Decade is made up of words from the last 10 Word of the Year competitions. It is diverse, with some words even being quite “baffling”, according to Macquarie Dictionary.
To determine if a new word makes it into the dictionary, Macquarie Dictionary looks at how often it is used.
“If a word is in the dictionary, it means that it’s used within community to a certain degree,” Ms Morgan said.
“Regardless of whether we agree with it or not, or like the term or dislike it, it’s really the dictionary’s job to record language as it’s being used.”
Ms Morgan said her team is fascinated by how new words make it into everyday speech.
“We find it extremely interesting when there’s a new phenomenon or trend or action that becomes quite common in society, and there’s not a word to describe it, so the community and the public, they actually create new language to cover those issues,” she said.
Factors that determine new words
“Is it something that people will notice and go ‘Oh, I could use that word because I can now name something I couldn’t name before?” – professor Nick Enfield
Nick Enfield, professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, believes words are like any kind of fashion that take off for various reasons, but several factors do come into play.
“One factor is, ‘is this innovation, this new word, sticky? Is it useful for something?’,” Mr Enfield told Hope 103.2.
“Is it something that people will notice and go ‘Oh, I could use that word because I can now name something I couldn’t name before?”
The word is useful to the extent that more words are needed to explain something if it didn’t exist, he said.
“The word has to be useful for people to adopt it but it also has to be ‘sticky’ in another sense, which is that it’s fun to use or people might be amused by it,” professor Enfield said.
To improve the chances of a word being taken up, it should be modelled by someone who many people listen to, he said.
“If you have a big audience on TV or on social media and you use a new word that people haven’t heard, then that will help boost the circulation of the word.
“Some new words get coined by individuals and they just don’t catch on and nobody hears them again and that’s the end of them.”
Ms Morgan said it is hard to overlook the word ‘fake news’, which Macquarie Dictionary recently added a new definition for the phrase.
The first definition is about misinformation and hoaxes that are published on websites for political purposes or to increase web traffic, but it is now being used to cast out information that people are opposed to, she said.
“The new use of ‘fake news’ that’s been incredibly high in the media for the past couple of years now and we just need to cover both because it’s still being used in both senses,” Ms Morgan said.
For Professor Enfield, the words ‘infovore’ and ‘doomscrolling’ stand out to him.
“I think those two stand out to me a bit because they both have to do with the rapidly developing culture of information in our society,” he said.
“In this past decade especially… our lives have been transformed by the information revolution of the later stage of it.”
Glue that connects us socially
“We associate words with experience but I would say most importantly the magic and the power of words is that that’s really the glue that connects us all socially.” – professor Nick Enfield
Words are one of the amazing tools that our species has, according to professor Enfield.
“With words, we can direct other people’s attention, we can invoke feelings in other people,” he said.
“We can manipulate other people, share our experiences with other people, we can invoke our identity, we can invoke our history and our community.”
He said the “enormous” power of words is all essentially about the social connection that human beings have with one another.
“We associate words with experience but I would say most importantly the magic and the power of words is that that’s really the glue that connects us all socially.
Voting for Word of the Decade will close at noon on February 4, with the winning word to be announced the following day.
Word of the Decade shortlist:
- cancel culture
- captain’s call
- fake news
- first world problem
- halal snack pack
- Me Too
- milkshake duck
- phantom vibration syndrome
- share plate