Dictionaries move with the times in a way few other books do. Photo: Getty
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The joy of dictionaries

To see how the world has changed, look no further than the dictionary.

You could write a history of the world just by looking at the words that got into the dictionary, and disappeared from it. You would of course have your great scientific advances: oxygen, aeroplane, penicillin, and boob job. But politics would play its part, for it was the world of politics that gave us Cold War, glasnost, ayatollah and suicide bomber. New habits make themselves known through phrases like sofa-surfing and texting. And art and music can be seen with the arrival of impressionism, ragtime, heavy metal, hip-hop, and emo. New social types arrive. Before the 1980s there was no such thing as a Sloane Ranger or a yuppie (from “Young Urban Professional”). And the 1990s gave us Britpop and ethnic cleansing.

Sometimes these words merely involve a new label applied to something that already exists. The teenager was never heard of before 1942. This doesn’t mean that the ages thirteen to nineteen didn’t exist before then. It was merely that they weren’t considered that important. You were a child and then you were a young man or woman. You played with toys, then you put those toys away and got yourself a job. The teenage phenomenon could only start when the teenagers were separated out by language. They were given a name and with it they were given an identity and very soon they were able to listen to teenage music, dress in teenage fashions, and do teenage things like dancing and sulking.

And with the rise of computers we have had the rise of the geek. Geek was originally a Scots dialect word (“geck”) that meant a fool or a simpleton. But slowly it became an insult, a term for an unsociable and boring student. And from there it has been reclaimed as a badge of honour for anybody who really understands computers and their strange ways. Now we have geek, geeky, and geekspeak, and this edition introduces geekery, geekism, and geek chic: “a fashion style believed to be characteristic of geeks, including the wearing of heavy-rimmed glasses and T-shirts with humorous slogans”. The fool has become fashionable. This dictionary contains 51,000 entries that have never appeared before. That’s the largest number that has ever been added to a new edition of Collins. As you can, no doubt, imagine, there are much too many to give a full and detailed account of everything that’s gone in, and why. We can leave that task to some future scholar who will pore over it all from his future study trying to work out what on earth went on in 2014. It’s too much for any one person even to remember them all. Some new words have been included for reasons that are prosaically obvious. The olinguito is a kind of racoon that lives in the cloud forests of the Andes. It crawls around among the foggy branches, and only does so at night, which probably explains why it was not discovered until 2013. And a year later it has crawled into the dictionary. The same thing goes for the lesula, a species of monkey found only in a small part of the Congo, which managed to go undiscovered for centuries despite having a strangely human face slightly resembling Edith Sitwell, and bright blue buttocks.

Just one of the new words to be added

Other new additions are technological. Indeed, this is the first time that the word technophilia – “enthusiasm for technology and the latest technological devices” – has appeared. It’s a close neighbour of textonym – a word that can be generated using the same numbers on a keypad – and Twittersphere.

Not all of the new words in this dictionary, though, are new. Some are old words which have been excluded for too long. Beautiful old words like slumbersome, which is a much better way of saying “sleepy”. It’s those soft, soothing S’s that send you off to slumberland, another new-old word that means “the domain of sleep”. Some of these are charming and elegant like the raconteuse, or “female raconteur”. Or perhaps eyesome, which means “pleasing to the eye”.

And other words are almost comical in their inelegance. Sitting glumly in the corner is quonk, which is a broadcasting term for any noise accidentally picked up on a microphone. There’s something so awkward and dumpy about the sound of quonk that it fits perfectly into its role. There’s the noop, which is the very tip of the elbow; and there’s the haffet, which is a part of the face in front of and above the ear.

A page or so further on and you get the horrors of the hagrider, which is a person or thing that causes fear and apprehension. I could blather on through all 50,000-plus additions, but for the moment, let us stick to the simple, newly included phrase nuff said.

This is an excerpt from “The Joy of Dictionaries” by Mark Forsyth, featured exclusively in Collins English Dictionary 12th edition, published 23 October 2014. Mark Forsyth is the bestselling author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon, and The Elements of Eloquence.

Collins are offering a special launch discount: £15 off the cover price, plus free P&P. Please go to bit.ly/collinsdictionary and key in code CO2014 at the checkout. Offer valid until 30 November 2014

Mark Forsyth is the bestselling author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon, and The Elements of Eloquence.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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