Word fashions

Word fashions

The past weeks have been so hectic that I’ve had little time to stop, think and blog. But a report on the BBC yesterday made me pause: the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ has proclaimed ‘selfie’ as its word of the year. The ‘word of the year’ is an interesting cultural indicator in English-speaking society: the choice is usually linked to technological innovation, a shift in social attitudes, or a set of political changes that affects everyone. Sometimes all three are involved.

But the selfie seems to be largely an indicator of technological change and social attitudes: the predictably outraged comments that follow the BBC reports on the ‘selfie’ and its crowning as ‘word of 2013’ suggest a move towards a vainer society, facilitated by the ability to take a snapshot of yourself on the phone and distribute it instantly via social media, usually for approbation. I guess you could call the overall procedure, ‘fishing for likes’.

The thing that really interested me about the BBC report, however, was the statistic revealing that, though the expression ‘selfie’ in its current sense, is first recorded in 2003, its use has risen 17000% in the past twelve months. That’s 17000%! First of all, the surge in usage is astonishing; secondly, how do the nice chaps at OED work this out?

The answer, of course, is that modern lexicography is based very much on monitoring the language with mind-bogglingly huge computerised corpora. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have fantastic corpus resources of the spoken and written language that have revolutionised dictionary-making over the past quarter of a century. Before the rise of computers, the main reference dictionaries employed small teams of readers to sift through prescribed texts, ferreting out interesting or novel usages for the citations. This itself was a mammoth enterprise, and its early days are ably dramatized by Simon Winchester in his books, ‘The Meaning of Everything’ and ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’ (or, in its American edition, the rather more sensational, ‘The Professor and the Madman’) which are well worth reading. But now, rather than having teams of dedicated readers, writing down terms on slips of paper, we have electronic corpora that can search extensive archives of written text (and increasingly transcribed speech) that show how words and meanings enter the language, rise in popularity, remain stable, or fade away. Tracking their fortunes over time can tell us a lot about technology, culture and attitude. This is particularly true when you look at the impact of one word or language on another.

Take for example, the little Russian suffix, ‘-nik’, meaning ‘small’. We can track the cross-cultural impact of this little bit of a word in American English by interrogating the freely-available online Corpus of Historical American English, maintained at Brigham Young University by Professor Mark Davies and his team. By logging onto CoHA and entering ‘*nik’ as your search item, and choosing ‘Chart’ as your display option, you can track the progress of this little bit of language from 1810 to 2009, mainly, of course, in written texts.

The number of occurrences of ‘-nik’ is of course relatively small between the 1810s and 1940s, and on closer inspection, the words in which we find this suffix are generally names of a Slavic origin, or foreign words that are glossed, e.g. in the 1930s we find a reference to the ‘the General Stefanik Circle of the Slovak League of America’. But then in the 1950s, there is a sudden late surge in the frequency of this suffix – thanks, of course, to a ‘little moon’ that began to orbit Earth in the late 1950s, the first man-made satellite, ‘Sputnik’. Early references to this technological advance show the response of American commentators to this Russian achievement. In 1958, Time magazine reports, ‘Despite the Sputnik furor and the panicky cries that the U.S. was lagging behind the Russians in missilery, Convair and the Air Force stuck stubbornly to a schedule that was programed for maximum effort long before Sputnik.’ Even in this one sentence one can sense why the ‘-nik’ suffix was becoming so frequent.

The ‘-nik’ surge continued in the 1960s, but ‘Sputnik’ was being joined by a number of new English coinages that employed the Russian suffix that the little man-made moon had done much to popularise. ‘Beatnik’ is first dated to the 1960s in CoHA, and the use of the Russian diminutive conveys much of the general suspicion that these counter-cultural figures aroused, and the pro-Soviet sympathies they were assumed to share: in an issue of Harpers magazine published in 1968, we find the sentence, ‘As they worked, the two government officers had a friendly laugh together over the filthy cowardice of “beatnik pinko kids.”’

Then, once ‘-nik’ had been released into English as an attitudinal suffix, signifying a certain attitude of contempt and political distaste, other words joined the fold: ‘refusenik’, ‘peacenik’, ‘folknik,’ ‘vietnik’ and ‘freaknik’ come into the English language from the 1960s onwards. Over two or three decades the degree of political distaste fades but an air of obsessiveness remains – a ‘neatnik’ is still someone who is a little too compulsively orderly in their habits.

So are these coinages merely a passing fad, as someone complains of ‘selfie’ in the postings that follow the BBC report on the OED’s decision? Some are. If you look at the frequency of ‘peacenik’ in CoHA, it is first found in the 1960s, peaks in frequency in the 1980s, but fades away in the 2000s to its low 1960s level. It seems to be on the way out. But the relative popularity of ‘-nik’ as a suffix that conveys a cultural attitude remains: the usages in CoHA in the 2000s still include a lot of proper names, but in between them you can find ‘no-goodnik’, ‘retro-beatnik’ and ‘neo-beatnik’. And, of course, people are still talking about Sputnik, that alarming piece of technology whose influence changed the language. The selfie might have a long future ahead of it.

Further reading:

The rise of the selfie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22511650

‘Selfie’ is the OED word of 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24992393

The Corpus of Historical American English: http://corpus2.byu.edu/coha/

Winchester, S. (2002). The surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary. Penguin UK.

Winchester, S. (2003). The meaning of everything: The story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.