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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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