Zombie nouns, words of the year, and serendipity

Time to report on my postings at Macmillan Dictionary Blog since the year turned. I have three new posts up. The first, Nominalisation and zombification, looks at a grammatical process often cited as a hindrance to good prose:

Nominalisation, with or without adding an affix, is very common in English, and is a prolific source of new vocabulary. Yet it has a bad reputation in writing circles. As well as the traditional grumbling about words being used in novel ways or created unnecessarily, there is also a popular belief that nominalisation leads to weak and wordy prose. In the New York Times last year, Helen Sword warned writers about what she calls zombie nouns that “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”.

Does Sword have a point? I look at the arguments and try to separate the sense from the scapegoating.

Next up is Mansplaining the new-word-pocalypse, in which I review the American Dialect Society’s recent Word of the Year poll, assess trends and likely keepers and offer some subjective thoughts on the winners and also-rans in the various categories:

Most readers will recognise some nominated terms and be less familiar with others. Gate lice (“airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board”), voted Most Creative, was new to me but made immediate visual sense. Still, I’d have liked to see mansplaining win (“a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience”). It’s not especially creative – just another man-word, really – but it is very useful and has inspired several variations, such as whitesplaining, geeksplaining, and others based specifically on people’s names.

The comments include some fun discussion of various man– and –splaining words.

My latest article, just up today, is In praise of serendipity – the much-loved word and the equally treasured experience. It includes a note on etymology:

We have Horace Walpole to thank for this popular but peculiar word. In a letter he wrote in 1754, Walpole describes looking through an old book at random and finding some fact of significance to his studies – a discovery, he says, “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

Walpole based the word on Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, as in the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. The eponymous princes, while travelling, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. Serendip comes from Arabic Sarandīb, ultimately from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ, meaning island (dvīpaḥ) of the Sri Lankan people.

I also wonder whether serendipity is threatened by the pattern of bookstores and dictionaries going increasingly online-only.

Your comments here or at Macmillan Dictionary are very welcome. For older articles, visit the archive.

21 Responses to Zombie nouns, words of the year, and serendipity

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    I still remember my favourite definition of serendipity as provided by a pharmacology lecturer of all people – Searching for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter

  2. marc leavitt says:

    There’s no question that dictionaries and serendipity go hand in hand. As we all have, I’ve often gone to the dictionary to look up a word, only to find 15 minutes later that I nearly forgot why I went
    there in the first place.

    • Since I find exactly the same problem with, eg, Wikipedia, (that is, being led on such a long path of hyperlinks by something I notice on the landing page I’ve forgotten what I was originally trying to look up) I certainly don’t think serendipity is dead. A similar thing happens with websites (particularly newspaper ones) that have sidebars full of linjks: it’s very easy to wander off down a distracting byway …

  3. Steeny Lou says:

    Your blog entry makes me think of this cartoon:

    Messing with words can be fun in small doses.

  4. Stan says:

    Shaun: I like that one!

    Marc: Aye, a good dictionary is a real rabbit hole.

    Steeny Lou: I’m with Calvin – I like to verb words too. But yes: small doses.

  5. limr says:

    And sometimes nominalization (Sorry, I’m American, I use the z!) can create more economy in the language:
    A tongue-in-cheek example:

    “There are a lot of stupid drivers on the road today!”
    compared to
    “The stupid is thick today.”

    Ultimately, I am a fan of precision in language, and sometimes that requires making up new words that others may not like. It’s not nominalization itself that I dislike; it’s the sloppy usage of those new nouns. Writers can take advantage of any generative linguistic processes and still be precise.

    Sometimes, though, I can help but judge. “Ask” instead of “question” as a noun sends shivers up my spine. And not in a good way.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    I just love gate lice. Thanks for the new word (to me), Stan. And I’ve always been partial to serendipity.


  7. Stan says:

    Leonore: Your example reminds of a famous lolcat line. I agree: nominalisation can be very economical. It’s not always useful or worthwhile, but language users can experiment and adopt as they see fit. Maybe you’ll get used to ask (n.) – it’s not really synonymous with question, I find.

    WWW: It’s a catchy coinage. I might use it yet.

  8. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Personally, I’m not enamored with the nominalisation, “gate lice”. For me the ‘icky factor’ kicks in here. Yet clearly, others seem to have no problem with it, and appreciated its admitted cleverness as an apt word-picture describing a phenomenon most of us who travel-by-air experience far too often. Yet a circumstance that is hard to avoid.

    I would be more comfortable with say “gate lemmings”, “gate cattle”, or “gate sheep”, which kinda connotes large numbers of congregated folk merely shuffling around at close quarters, while waiting impatiently.


    Speaking of novel “man-words”, I’ve always cringed a bit at the term “manscaping”, referring to modern males of a certain inclination who appear to have an inordinate preoccupation with trimming their body hair to allegedly enhance appearance, or contribute to better personal hygiene. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se.)

    Seems like this fairly recently coined term fits well with another kind of loaded word for a stylish, suave, man-about-town, i.e., “metrosexual”. (I think we used to call these guys gigolos back in the day HA!)

    Stan, thanks for that entailed etymology of the word “serendipity”. Who knew? (Curious where “Ceylon” fits into all of this. Likely an appellation coined early on by the colonial Brits, no?)

    Of course, the native Sri Lankans might lean more towards ‘sri-endipity’… Groan. (Couldn’t resist.)

  9. Stan says:

    Alex: I can’t say I’m any more enamoured of gate lemmings, cattle, or sheep – the comparisons do little credit to humans or to the animals in question! Glad you enjoyed the etymological note on serendipity; it’s a little story unto itself.

    Martyn: Yes: the structure of the internet and the prevalence of hyperlinks makes serendipity a near-constant possibility.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      Point well taken.

      As someone who has an abiding love and compassion for ‘all creatures great and small’ (particularly birds), including most insects, I can appreciate how ‘indiscriminate’ anthropomorphizing in my likening some familiar characteristic actions of lemmings, cows and sheep to human behavior, might offend… which truly was not my intent.

      (I was merely trying to see an element of humor in the peculiar self-herding behavior of we homo sapiens; in this case, at airports.)

      Yet to your earlier point of umbrage, I would contend that comparing humans to “lice” as in the earlier “gate lice'” instance, doesn’t do great “credit to humans”, either; irrespective of one’s feelings re/ lice. (If I had my druthers I’d prefer to be likened to a sheep, or cow, rather than head lice.)

      Hmm… although come to think of it, Franz Kafka got some pretty good narrative mileage out of his human-to-cockroach transformation.

      • Stan says:

        My comment was not meant very seriously either, Alex, and I wasn’t remotely offended. Most people would probably subscribe to some sort of hierarchy of value in the animal world, in which sheep and cows trump lice, but it’s not an issue I intend to get into here. :-)

        By the way, I think Kafka’s “monstrous vermin” was left unidentified in the original, though it is often interpreted or depicted as a cockroach or generic bug.

      • John Cowan says:

        Definitely not a cockroach, just a big (dog-sized!) beetle of an indeterminate family. One of the characters calls him a dung beetle, but this is just being polite: he is not, as that eminent entomologist, Vladimir Nabokov, made clear in his lecture on “The Metamorphosis”.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:


        I half-suspected a little tongue-in-check hyperbole had come into play there with your comment on discussing attitudes towards our beastly brethren. Thanks for the followup clarification.

        Good point re/ Kafka’s transformed creature,i.e., your distinction that Kafka never actually defined the “monstrous vermin”, but was maybe speaking more in vague metaphor, than solid substance.

        @John, thanks for your additional clarifying commentary, and the V. Nabokov lecture link. Curious if this Vladimir Nabakov is the novelist of “Lolita” fame. Likely is… or a very weird name coincidence. (I suppose being a great writer and an eminent bug scientist are not mutually exclusive possibilities in one gifted individual.)

        Being a renaissance-man wasn’t reserved exclusively for the likes of the ultimate polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. (Take Jerry Lewis for example…. just kidding.)

        Parenthetically, I was pleasantly surprised to discover some years back that Brit Desmond Morris, the biologist/ non-fiction scribe, and author of the then-watershed work, “The Naked

        Ape” (first published some 45 years ago), is an accomplished professional painter. Stylistically, kind of a surrealist/ symbolist at heart. Who knew?

  10. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Noticed I spelled my second “Nabokov” wrong (unwittingly substituted an “a” for the first “o”), in that last post. Oh well.

    Not responsible for that odd line-break in Morris’s “The Naked Ape”, though.

  11. Mary D says:

    The serendipity to be found in a bookstore differs from what’s available on the internet. There’s something about the physicality of the book, and the opportunity to take in a whole page at a glance, that I find satisfying in a way that the internet just can’t match.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: