I was recently appalled to discover how many of the “new” words just appearing in the Oxford Dictionary are hacked-down versions of old favorites: apols (apologies), grats (congratulations), srsly (seriously), and so on. Is our language being hijacked by Twitter? But no, I was relieved to note that many of this year’s newbies were spelled out in full and are rich with meaning: buzzworthy, Oprah’s trademark aha moment, and digital detox for times when you need a vacation from your technology.
And some old faves have earned new definitions. Earworm (originally a blight attacking corn) now also means, in the words of Stephen King, one of those “songs that burrow into your head and commence chewing your brains.”
Clearly the English language isn’t in great peril if we’re still coining new words and usages like that.
The great thing is, anyone can invent words. A couple of years ago, I was walking through the woods with some friends, and we started talking about how words get born. (Yes, I know, I am such a language geek.) Challenged to think of a new one, I came up with the phrase going spiral to mean something that gets quoted and bandied about among friends. Unlike going viral, which indicates something that rapidly enters widespread public awareness, going spiral means circulating around within a private group, such as the running jokes that last through a reunion weekend.
Whenever I travel with certain friends, I know sooner or later someone will say, “I don’t know where I am but I don’t feel lost,” or “We’re very, very close,” to indicate the driver has absolutely no idea when, or even if, we will reach our destination. Going spiral gains a bit more momentum every time a friend uses the phrase in conversation, correspondence, or a comment on my blog or Facebook page, but I doubt you’ll see it in the Oxford Dictionary any time soon.
I was delighted to discover that I’m not the only one out there coming up with new words. Social media superstar and actor George Takei (you first knew him as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek) invites people to send him new words they’ve coined, and his friends have come up with some doozies.
Shenaniganza: An extravaganza of shenanigans (from Anne-Marie Whisman Pine)
Boobage (alternative to cleavage): “I like this dress, but it shows too much boobage” (from Christine Lathem)
Hangry: hungry + angry (from Wendy Flick)
Brilliant! I, for one, am inserting these words into my daily conversations as we speak.
If you’ve got a new word that deserves a wider audience, now’s your chance to let it go spiral, maybe even viral. Post it here in the comments, and let us know what it means and how you’d use it in a sentence. They say the English language contains the largest, most cramazing and spiffylicious collection of words in the world, and I figure it’s up to all of us to keep it snizzo.
I’ll leave you with another favorite new word from the George Takei collection:
Cellodrama: One side of a drama played out in front of a group of people overhearing someone else’s phone call, (on a bus, train, etc), ie: “… aww, c’mon Rosie, I didn’t … she was kissing ME … no I wasn’t … no don’t be like that, we can work this out babe … Rosie? … No don’t say that baby … Rosie, ROSIE!?!” etc. (from Laen Deakin)
To my grandmother, the silent film actress Ramona Langley, a little white lie was as indispensable as a little black dress. Both, in her opinion, helped the world go around in a more agreeable, amusing and civilized way.
Ramona Langley (1893 - 1983)
My grandmother was once entertaining a group of friends for dinner when her housekeeper, Maddie, tripped carrying in the turkey, sending the unfortunate bird flying off the platter and onto the floor at the feet of the guests. What to do? One could not possibly serve food known to have touched the floor. Without missing a beat my grandmother said, “Maddie, bring in the other turkey!” And when Maddie returned with the hastily cleaned bird, everyone pretended to believe it had never taken a swan dive onto the carpet.
When it came to rescuing an imperiled social situation, my grandmother never hesitated. Once a dinner guest accidentally broke one of my grandmother’s expensive wine goblets, and the poor woman kept apologizing in an agony of embarrassment. Finally my grandmother picked up her own wine glass, dashed it to pieces on the edge of the table, and said, “My dear, it’s only a wine glass.”
Ramona Langley (center) in She Was Only a Working Girl
One cold, rainy afternoon in Paris, Rich and I were returning from a visit the church of the Sacre Coeur in Monmartre, and in the overheated taxi, I set down my umbrella and shed my hat and gloves. When we pulled up to the hotel, I gathered my things and climbed out. The driver pulled away, and I realized my little black hat was nowhere to be seen. I sprinted off in pursuit of the taxi, which was proceeding slowly up a narrow, crowded street lined with fruit stands, bakeries and cheese sellers. Dozens of Parisians paused in their shopping to raise an eyebrow as I raced up to the cab and pounded on the back fender to signal it to stop. The cabby jammed on his brakes. The entire street seemed to hold its breath as I flung open the passenger door and reached inside.
It was at this precise moment that I realized that my little black hat was actually on my head.
What to do? What would my grandmother do?
I emerged from the cab smiling and holding up my gloves as if I’d just retrieved them from the back seat. The entire street seemed to let out a sigh of relief, and the cabby gave me a cheerful wave and drove off.
That night, over glasses of wine, I told some friends about the incident, and one of them promptly said, “Maddie, bring in the other turkey!”
To many of my friends and relatives, that phrase has become a synonymous with the quick social save, especially one involving a little white lie. It’s been quoted and bandied about for years, a phenomena known as “going spiral.” Unlike going viral, which indicates something that rapidly enters widespread public awareness, going spiral means circulating around and around within a private group. For example, the comment “I don’t know where I am, but I don’t feel lost,” voiced many years ago on a long-forgotten road trip, gets quoted at least once every time I’m with certain amigos struggling to find the right route. Sadly, with today’s ubiquitous GPS systems, this phrase may soon pass into obsolescence.
But people will always break wine glasses, drop the main course on the floor, and commit any number of social solecisms that require an adroit touch to pull the moment back from the brink of social catastrophe. And if I am lucky enough to find the right words to avert such a disaster, I hope you will be on hand to say, “Maddie, bring in the other turkey.”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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