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."
Most of these coinages are anonymous. They seep into our language unnoticed, catch on and stick there for a while, until many of them are eventually flushed out by still newer and cooler ones. Remember when it was customary to add "Not!" or "As if!" after a declarative sentence you didn't really mean - as in "The world is certainly headed in a great direction these days. Not!"
That was back when the vitality of our language seemed briefly in the hands of those who wrote for "Saturday Night Live," with some help, perhaps, from the Monty Python troupe, and so many of the new buzzwords and expressions came to us through television. Before that, it was the rockers and the hipsters who enriched our vocabulary, and before that people who actually wrote for a living.
Now the great conduit is the blogosphere, both a neologism itself and an uncharted space that, the more we map it, looks more and more like our collective unconscious. It dreams up the new words and disseminates them directly into the language, no longer by IV but by instant messaging - a term, by the way, that may soon require its own retronym: messengered message. The Week in Review looks at some of the more inventive and persistent words and expressions to infiltrate our brainpans this year - and at how they helped us make sense of the events and fads and inventions of 2004.
note that this is the intro essay to a more extensive examination of specific words & phrases from 2004.