04 August 2011
As popular culture expands its boundaries, especially in our nearly “borderless” global society, language adapts and builds its treasure trove. New words seem to be coined daily, even if they’re not. But some of these neologisms are downright irritating. Especially, when they become so commonplace that they are almost meaningless in their new meaning. Still, English is not a static language, and its history tells us how easy and hard it is to add new words and slang to the vernacular. These additions seem so twenty-first century. Often we simply do not notice subtle changes, and then a newly-annointed word spreads itself over and over again as though it’s trying to be accepted (e.g., mass-produced and seamless).
Shakespeare gave us a huge golden bowl filled with new words (a sample: time-honored from Richard II; motionless from Henry V; and, hot-blooded from The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Lear). His enormous contribution to the evolution of Early Modern English into our current Modern English seems unbeatable. It’s certainly not a neologism race, yet I’ve noticed an influx of words whose meaning has been altered or divined or flipped to remix usage.
These amalgams are usually made of everyday familiar words, but can as easily be composed of stem-words, word fragments and affixes. It’s a sort of permanent borrowing the old to create the hip. Or rescuing them from sleeping days and nights. What really crawls up my spine are compound words whose blend are blatantly redundant (ones that seem repetitive in their new form such as proactive and lightning-fast).
This pulling together of two or more words to heighten the effect has its place. Some of them simple aggravate and stop my attention rather than move it forward.
New words pop up and eventually some have sticking power. Examples include combining words that alter the meaning of the individual words (salt-and-peppered), or boost the rating of their general meaning to a specific popular culture designation (swag, swaggered, swagger), or coining words which seem unnecessary (posthaste), and those that just grate on the senses (scratch: He made the cake from scratch.), words that use sarcasm to become popular (whatever); borrowing from other languages (über-happy) and one’s that are popularized by broadcast media (flurry, used during NPR’s fundraisers).
But the ones that seem to be overused to cut a swath across Modern English are hyphenated. Mostly, broad acceptance has been given to endless creation of compound words that appear as adjectives.
So when does a hyphenated word lose its center and become a whole word? Some words will inch their way into the popular culture, and the once-hyphenated words will be united (e.g., multiethnic). Others forever will be hyphenated, because they do not read well without the small barrier. Of course, unless they are spread through various media, they have a short shelf life and become author-specific.
We’re crazed with power to make words with hyphens–to give more pizzaz to our writing. But it’s especially apparent with journalists. This morning I read Alex Pappademas’ Riff article in the Sunday New York Times’s magazine section (July 31, 2011). Her two-page article had thirty-nine hyphenated words (talk-about, comic-book, superhero-nerdspace, hype-cycle, self-cannibalization, $143-million-grossing, superhero-movie, be-yourself-ist, saddle-stapled, like-minded, open-minded, eye-patched, elbow-your-seatmate, secret-except-on-the-Internet, fan-deity, as-yet-unmade, god-prince, hammer-wielding, hard-core, middle-management, opening-weekend, mind-set, Burton-ish, even-more-Burtonian-latex-fetish, Christ-figureish, crowd-source, brand-extension, video-game, cut-scene, nine-figure, film-geek, stripped-down, guys-on-a-mission, American-flag, high-concept, Nazi-hunting, candy-dipped, period-interior-design, cover-band). Whew!
Sure, they’re great descriptors, but they also make a point about the proliferation of do-overs. Yep, hyphenated words definitely are game-changers. Some morph into buzzwords and we cannot live without them (e.g., stream-lined, well-known). Others have few minutes of semi-fame.
But this pattern in linguistic history seems to be broadening its base. Certainly, technology and social media pump new volume into the newly-made. We’re continuing to redefine English as new renditions sit on the surface of our print media.
So go ahead–try your hand at these all-in-one combinations. Juice up your writing, because others certainly are.
Note: So how many newly-minted adjectives of my own creation (author-specific, newly-annointed, newly-made, newly-minted, once-hyphenated, semi-fame) did I use? Six. Or has someone somewhere used them too?