The Year of (Your Catchphrase Here)
By CHARLES McGRATH
IF languages are living things, as the philologists like to say, then English is a sort of Frankenstein creature, originally built of spare parts - a little French, a little Anglo-Saxon, some Norse and Danish. And in its youthful days it was jolted several times by enormous transfusions of new vocabulary from traders, from the early printers and from writers, Shakespeare especially, who is sometimes said to have invented, single-handedly, a quarter of our lexicon.
In his new book, "The Stories of English," David Crystal suggests that Shakespeare's totals are inflated because he often gets credit for words he coined more or less in the spirit of an enterprising Scrabble player - by cleverly deploying the prefix "un," for example, to give us "unhoused" and "unshouted." Clever but not exactly full-blown inventions.
But whatever Shakespeare's exact contribution, the days of such infusions are over. The patient is ambulatory and robust, sustained today merely by an IV trickle of freshly minted slang, buzzwords and, lately, retronyms. These are retoolings or respecifications of old words that have been made necessary by new technology, the most famous examples being "snail mail," "analog watch" and "black-and-white TV." With just a little stretching you could also include "Classic Coke," "two-parent family" and "free parking."( rest of the articleCollapse )
note that this is the intro essay to a more extensive examination of specific words & phrases from 2004.