In defence of unnecessary words

A conservative criticism commonly levelled at new words is that they are ‘unnecessary’ – that we already have a perfectly good and proper word for whatever it is, so why introduce this needless alternative, this objectionable offshoot, this linguistic weed? Because god forbid there should be an overabundance of words. Think of the mess.

Traditionalists decry or resist neologisms they find redundant, those that overlap with existing words rather than fill an obvious gap in the language. There’s simply no need for it, goes the argument. And it’s not just words. New grammatical patterns get the same treatment: after writing about the innovative because X construction, I was told it was ugly and unnecessary.

An aside: Sometimes neologisms are distinguished from nonce-words, words invented for a single occasion or situation. Critics spare these because they’re disposable coinages and not seriously intended as additions to the language. Though sometimes a useful distinction, it’s not always a clear one; in the rapid everyday exchange of language, no one knows what will catch on.

Tom Gauld - cartoon for the Guardian on neologisms and forgotten words[Cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Guardian]

And so to this idea of necessity. Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, after noting that neologisms ‘should be formed with some regard to etymological decency’ (lest they be monstrous hybrids), says new words adopted directly from other languages are less objectionable ‘provided always that the new words fill a gap‘ (emphasis mine).

William Zinsser, in his classic On Writing Well, puts his foot down firmly on upstarts and colloquialisms he dislikes: ‘I won’t accept “notables” and “greats” and “upcoming” and countless other newcomers. They are cheap words and we don’t need them.’ No amazeroonie for him.

Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says neologisms usually

demand an explanation or justification, since the English language is already well stocked. New words must fill demonstrable voids to survive . . .

And so on. I just don’t get this parsimonious fixation on sufficiency. Avoiding new and ‘needless’ words in formal contexts is all well and good, but what’s wrong with a grand superfluity elsewhere? Will the language look untidy if words float around not filling vital gaps? Will they gum up the works? Arthur Quiller-Couch, in The Art of Writing, found it better

to err on the side of liberty than on the side of the censor: since by the manumitting of new words we infuse new blood into a tongue of which (or we have learnt nothing from Shakespeare’s audacity) our first pride should be that it is flexible, alive . . .

Similarly, G. H. Vallins declares in Better English that there is ‘no more fatuous and harmful activity of the pedant than resisting new inventions’ and that ‘the ultimate question is, Is it necessary?’ To answer that properly we must consider carefully the word necessary.

When we talk about whether there’s a need for some grammatical or lexical innovation, we shouldn’t limit our interpretation to semantics. Language is more than the transmission of lexical meaning, and words meet other kinds of need: social, pragmatic, stylistic, aesthetic.

And creative. We may enjoy the fun of new words, what I’ve described as an ‘instinctive inclination to play with words and letters as though they were an abstract kind of toy’. One of the main arenas for this kind of language play and experimentation is slang, and one of the most interesting books on slang I’ve read in a while is Michael AdamsSlayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon.

Slayer Slang offers a robust defence of new, ‘unnecessary’ usages. Discussing the –age suffix popularised by Buffy, Adams says the resulting forms (slayage, sliceage, punnage, etc.) are

semantically less important than in English generally, that is, the words thus supplied usually do not fill gaps in current vocabulary; instead, they perform an important social function within the speech community that uses slayer slang. . . . Necessity is always accompanied by assumptions, however, and to call a redundant form ‘unnecessary’ or ‘needless’ is to presume that one can accurately gauge ‘the need.’ The need for –age in slayer slang is social, not lexical, and a matter of style, though admittedly not the style one reads about in style guides.

One can read into this the traditional conflation of informal English with inferior English – an unfortunate idea with no linguistic basis but great social weight. Later, writing about the speed of language change and the use of what he calls ephemeral language, Adams admits to a ‘bias about the desirability of flux’:

It seems to me that any change is desirable if it serves a purpose. If a word fills a lexical gap, it serves a purpose; if a word or syntactic pattern expresses a particular speaker’s sense of verbal style, it serves a purpose, too. Such ephemeral purposes, along with their ephemeral effects, are completely justified. . . .

The very idea of ‘lexical gap’ is notoriously problematic: ostensibly, there is a difference between being happy and getting a happy . . .

This refers to a usage in Buffy, and more broadly in slayer slang (which extends into the wider Buffyverse), where happy functions as a noun: It gives me a happy; Hence the happy; I’m going to have a happy. It has to do with a happy moment rather than a general state of happiness. Adams continues, persuasively:

If study of slayer slang exposes anything, it’s the potency of style, relative to lexical gaps, in the creation of new words, new senses of words, and new syntactic patterns. . . . The fetish of suffixation, while it sometimes produces forms whose meanings are as subtly distinct from such established alternatives as happy n from happy adj, just as often yields forms without a fillip of lexical meaning different from standard alternatives—drinkage, in terms of lexical semantics, does not mean anything other than drinking. Yet not all meaning is lexical, and the style expressed in drinkage, even though it might not appeal to a language maven any more than a particular cuff or neckline would appeal to Joan Rivers, is style nonetheless.

Amen to that. Now go forth and ephemerise.

buffy the vampire slayer meme - stop new wordage

60 Responses to In defence of unnecessary words

  1. Peter William Carrillo says:

    “Ugly and unnecessary” is the argument I hear the most. It seems that people’s problems with neologisms are not their novelty, but are, in fact, just a matter of personal taste.

  2. New words must fill demonstrable voids to survive.

    I think Garner is almost right here, though probably not in the way that he intends. New words do demonstrate that they fill some kind of void (though perhaps niche would be a better word) through their use.

    New words that don’t catch on probably don’t fill a niche very well, or they stop filling it well, maybe because the novelty wears off and people move on to something else. But if people have a need for novelty and for play, why complain about it? Just let them have their fun.

  3. Sean J. says:

    Words that are ‘unnecessary’, won’t get old. They come and they go, defended or not.

  4. CS says:

    Brings to mind that wonder paragraph by E.B. White about his English mentor Will Strunk:

    “Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

    Strunk, though, had an important point: superfluous verbiage that adds nothing to the clarity, pith, or vividness of a statement, can only detract from its force or charm and is truly to be eschewed.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Here in car-crazed, car-dependent L.A., where freeway traffic congestion, and chronic gridlock for most local commuters has become a necessary evil, over the last few years the local media have managed to deftly play the hyperbole card in coining two clever traffic-event related words… “Carmageddon”, and most recently, “Jamzilla”.

    Carmageddon (Phase 1) was coined in anticipation of the dreaded vehicular chaos, and sheer gridlock that was predicted to ensue when a 10-mile section of the I-405 (San Diego) FWY would completely close down for a period of roughly 50 hours in July of 2011, in order for Caltrans workers to demolish an overpass/ bridge, and then truck away the resultant ‘deconstruction’ debris.

    Turns out all the dire media pre-hype surrounding this major closure/ demolition operation, and their constant use of the Carmageddon catch-word, pretty much keep most Angelenos away from the 10-mile work zone. Curiously, the operation was completed several hours before the projected deadline, and under budget, to boot.

    Like many an anticipated apocalypse, Carmageddon— predicted inevitable freeway madness— never really materialized.

    In anticipation of yet another I-405 FWY complete lane closure scenario, this time of all north-bound lanes, coming up this Presidents’ Day weekend (Feb. 14- Feb.17), for a scheduled 80-hour paving operation of one of those High-Occupancy Lanes (HOV), our local media, some weeks ago, came up w/ the word “Jamzilla”, again anticipating that clueless Angeleno drivers will ignore the warnings about the prolonged nightly lane closures, hit the highway, and likely create a virtual gridlocked parking lot on California’s already most-trafficked freeway. My prediction… not going to happen. Another media prophesy fails.

    “Carmageddon” and “Jamzilla”… two words coined by our alarmist local L.A. media, that will likely be long forgotten in due time. “Unnecessary words”? You be the judge.

  6. Stan says:

    Peter: That’s true. Often it’s an instinctive dislike, which may or may not abate over time. People are entitled to these subjective reactions, of course, but not to enforce them on others.

    Jonathon: “But if people have a need for novelty and for play, why complain about it?” Why indeed. And yes, Garner’s ‘survival’ point is valid. I considered leaving it out because I wasn’t focusing on that aspect of new words, but I wanted to show the recurrence of this idea of voids and gaps being filled.

    Sean: Quite right. As do words that aren’t dismissed as unnecessary.

    CS: Thanks for sharing that entertaining passage (which I indented in your comment for clarity’s sake). My post’s line about avoiding new and “needless” words in informal contexts I intended as an allusion to Strunk & White. It’s decent general advice for certain contexts, but it needn’t be obeyed to the letter, everywhere, yet many people seem to think it should be; they have elevated the dictum to the status of holy creed. I prefer to omit needless criticisms of redundancy.

    Alex: If nothing else, they’re good examples of the popular libfixes -zilla and -mageddon. (A paragraph or two would have sufficed; this isn’t really the place for extended op-eds about L.A. traffic.)

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Stan… I apologize for the long-windedness, and entirely agree, a few lines could have sufficiently made my point. I regret my ‘relapse’ into bloviating… a nagging bad habit of mine that I continue to wrestle with.

      Alas, a kingdom for a good editor. (I don’t need a horse.)

      Thanks for the word “libfixes, a new one on me.

  7. I think many new words emerge from pop culture and people think they are lazy, crass, or juvenile. But I think it is amazing to see how language continues to evolve in surprising ways.

  8. limr says:

    Stan, I’m not sure if you ever watched the series, but Buffy was such a well-written show. The language was playful and skillfully manipulated and the dialogue was tight, all of which was an important part of developing the chemistry of the group. Of course this shows another purpose of creating new forms out of old: social group identification.

    I do understand how people might not like specific neologisms (always have to check my spelling of that word!) – sometimes certain new words will trigger violent eye-twitching in me simply because of their sound. But I also recognize that they represent a certain facility and skill with language, and they serve a purpose. Whether or not that purpose coincides with my own shouldn’t matter; the new word still has value to the people who do find a need for them.

  9. John Cowan says:

    As it happens, I was just rereading the engineer and historian Henry Petroski’s book The Evolution of Useful Things. Among the points the book makes is that it is not necessity but desire that is the mother of invention. For the most part, we make new things not because we need them in any absolute sense, but because we want them. Any old rock will do as a hammer, but in 19th-century Birmingham (England), Marx was amazed to note that no less than five hundred kinds of hammers were being manufactured for different purposes.

    And the same is true of the invention of words: we make them because we want them, not because we could not live without them, but because we conceive we can live better with them.

  10. Stan says:

    Alex: If you’re interested in libfixes, I recommend Neal Whitman’s A–Z tour and Arnold Zwicky’s extensive archive of libfix-related posts.

    Awkward: Yes, and the judgement is often a way of judging the source of the words more than the words themselves.

    Leonore: For whatever reasons I never saw a full episode when it was on TV, but I watched the whole series over the last couple of years (and then read Adams’s book; I had to wait!). You’re right: their slang is very much geared towards group cohesion and identification, and this is something Slayer Slang looks closely at. Your second paragraph is bang on. If only more people cultivated that attitude.

    John: That’s a good insight. I would add that it’s not just (or maybe even primarily) desire or necessity that prompts invention. As a biological phenomenon, life is itself inventive, and so too is language as a natural manifestation of it. Productivity is one of language’s defining traits; in situations both everyday and extraordinary, new forms are always likely to occur.

  11. wisewebwoman says:

    I just loved a recent one I heard from granddaughter: “He sure harshed my mellow”.

    So succinct. And vivid.


  12. Stan says:

    WWW: I like that one too, and usually hear it in the form “Don’t harsh my mellow (man)”. Oddly enough I associate it with The Big Lebowski, though I don’t think it’s in that film at all. World Wide Words has a short history of the phrase.

    TFP: Exactamundo!

  13. Ferrer says:

    I love neologisms, as I love most other words. I even created a webpage dedicated to the words some languages (EN, DE, ES) don´t (yet) have. Whether they need them or not is not for me to judge, if people like words, they will use them, if not, they will not. How can somebody try to ban a word on the grounds it is a neologism and expect to get away with it? It does not matter if a word is needed or not, as long as I want to use it, I will. Try to stop me if you can. It´s like forbidding synonyms.
    Examples of English words I like Spanish and German don´t have: Serendipity, procrastination, brainstorming, maverick, shibbolet, toddler. A word I don´t like? Facility. But I would not be so foolish and try to abolish it.

    • Stan says:

      Ferrer: Well said. I don’t think the would-be word-banners think as far ahead as actually achieving their wishes. They just react against certain words and want to let off steam, get the word rage out of their systems. There are words I don’t immediately like, but I find it more productive to examine why, rather than demanding that the world stop using these words. It’s also far better for one’s health to just accept them!

  14. John says:

    That cartoon could do with a couple of Necromancers of Words Whose Time Has Come Again* pushing a wheelbarrow from the Graveyard back to the Institute. Just for completeness’ sake.

    Given the topic at hand, I feel I should give this a name. Nostalgiologism?

  15. […] rousing defence of “unnecessary” words by Stan Carey, ft. Buffy the Vampire […]

  16. kitchenmudge says:

    The world is full of neologisms that began as playful, and then were copied by people who thought they were serious. I think the warning about “not filling a gap” is meant for those who simply mimick without understanding.

    If delivered with no hint of humor, unnecessary neologisms, especially those that are getting middle-aged, just sound pretentious. They make an ass of the speaker:

    “at a rapid pace” for “fast”
    “decimate” for “destroy”
    “personal growth” for “learning”
    “disincentivize” for “discourage”

  17. Stan says:

    John: I like that idea. Maybe retrologisms?

    kitchenmudge: Decimate has meant ‘destroy (a large portion of)’ for centuries; insisting on its strict sense is pointless.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      I don’t insist on anything. I simply observe that it’s useless, and makes the speaker look pretentious.

    • CS says:

      Decimate has meant ‘destroy (a large portion of)’ for centuries. Insisting on its strict sense is pointless

      1. Select by lot and execute one in every ten of, esp; as a punishment in the Roman legions.

      Shorter OED, Sixth Edn.

      So yes, decimate, does mean to execute one in ten. A good word that should not be stripped of its precise meaning on the insistence of those, who, having misused it all their lives, try to insist on the correctness of their misuse on the basis of common usage.

      The issue here is not of correct use but of appropriate use. If you are talking to some bloke on the tube, you might say the Americans decimated the Swiss in womens’ hockey at Sochi, when all that you meant to convey is that the Americans blanked the Swiss (nine to nothing, as it happens).

      But if you were giving a talk on Cromwell’s Irish campaign to a company of scholars, you might properly say, and be clearly understood in saying that: “In 1649 Oliver Cromwell decimated the garrison in the town of Drogheda.”

      Equally, if you are addressing an educated readership you would use the word “decimate” to describe a decimation, as did the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on February 7, 1940 in the headline: Nazis Decimated Jews in Town Near Warsaw, Poles Report

      That this was a correct use of the term is evident from the story that followed which stated:

      “Polish official circles reported today that German troops on Dec. 26 executed every tenth inhabitant of the predominantly-Jewish town of Varka near Warsaw in reprisal for the shooting of a German policeman by a criminal escaping from a police raid.”

  18. kitchenmudge says:

    It might have been used centuries ago, but can still be “new” in a new culture, or out of fashion for a few decades and “new” again.

    People use many useless things. They mostly use them just to take up space and gather dust, as many garages will tell you with a glance.

    Switching a less common word for a more common one can be done playfully or pretentiously, but to be playful it needs to be a not-so-common practice. Jokes get old.

    • Stan says:

      I repeat: decimate is not a neologism. (You also called at a rapid pace a neologism, but it too is centuries old.) Whether a word or usage is new to a culture or back in vogue is a separate matter.

      If people use things, then by definition they have a use, even if it’s not obvious to everyone.

      • kitchenmudge says:

        Well, yes, I suppose such words and phrases are useful in proclaiming oneself a fool. If that’s your purpose, use them all you like.

        I’m talking about the effect on the hearer. If it’s new to the hearer, it’s new. Centuries-old literature is irrelevant if the hearer hasn’t read it.

  19. Stan says:

    kitchenmudge: I prefer not to judge people so superficially.

    CS: For some reason, you’ve omitted two things from the Shorter OED entry that are crucial here. 1. It labels as historical the ‘execute one in ten’ sense of decimate. 2. It supplies another sense, which it labels general: ‘kill, destroy, or remove a large portion of…’. Decimate has more than one correct meaning, and the ‘looser’ sense is agreed to be standard by all serious authorities on language usage, including the OED, American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Chicago Manual of Style, Garner, et al. As enlightened grammarians have recognised since at least the 18th century, correctness comes from common usage. It does not come from hyper-literal interpretation or etymological precedence: these are unfortunately common fallacies.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Ah, I’m accused of (dum DUM dum)… JUDGING!

      You seem unable to distinguish between your straw man prescriptivist (often a part played by trolls):

      “Don’t use that because it’s not part of the immutable English handed down from God.”

      and the actual person trying to give helpful advice:

      “Don’t use that because you might confuse or distract people, or make an ass of yourself.”

      We’re talking about the social results of doing something perceived as unnecessary, right? You can pound small nails with a large drill bit, but why, when there’s a perfectly good small hammer right in front of you?

      Oh, it’s an article of your faith that if you ever see someone do this, you’ll assume there MUST be a reason why the drill bit is better at that moment? Do you think everyone will make that assumption? No, it might amuse your co-workers for a moment, and maybe that’s the intent (playfulness), but if you keep on doing it, they’re going to think there’s something a bit odd about you.

      • John says:

        “Don’t use that because you might confuse or distract people, or make an ass of yourself.”

        But everyone uses that argument to deride their pet peeve. “Oh, it’s not ME saying you shouldn’t do it, I’m just helpfully informing you that everyone in the world feels the same way I do, and they all think you’re an ass when you do that. No need to thank me.”

        “IF you use that word, you might confuse or distract people” is fair enough. Issuing thou-shalt-nots and warning people about “mak[ing] an ass of yourself” for using a common and well-established polyseme is just OTT.

        To quote a book of writing quidelines, “We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. “No right on red” is a rule. “Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly” is an observation.”

    • CS says:

      As enlightened grammarians have recognised since at least the 18th century, correctness comes from common usage.

      Well, you may think those grammarians who say correctness comes from common usage are enlightened, but I maintain that they are ignoring the obvious fact that people use different vocabularies according to what they are talking about and who they are talking with.

      To insist that on all occasions words such as “decimate” or “disinterested” be used only in the sense most commonly understood, even when in a particular case the historical acceptation [LME} is appropriate, detracts greatly from the effectiveness of the English language.

      The truth, I think, is that the rule that common usage rules, is asserted chiefly because it sounds democratic, but is universally ignored by those whose vocabulary allows them to do so to advantage when addressing an audience that can be expected to understand their meaning, e.g., the readers of the JTA report cited above.

      • John says:

        “To insist that on all occasions words such as “decimate” or “disinterested” be used only in the sense most commonly understood…”

        Who on Earth is insisting on that?

      • cs says:

        Who on Earth is insisting on that?

        I thought you were insisting that to do otherwise constitutes incorrrect usage! But I acknowledge that you are not explicitly proscribing incorrect use!

      • John Cowan says:

        It is you who is attempting to proscribe the uses you call “incorrect”. We neither prescribe nor proscribe them.

  20. Revisiting in response to Stan’s tweet about the sudden dive into “decimate”-peeving:

    In my experience, the non-Roman sense of “decimate” always carries considerable emotive force, and so, when the word is used in a relatively matter-of-fact register — as in CS’s examples — it suggests the original sense is intended. I think there is rarely any genuine ambiguity.

    I don’t personally use the word, but in its modern sense I understand it to mean destroy such a large proportion of the target that it is unlikely ever to recover. The nearest synonym would be “devastate”, but minus the ambiguity with the personal emotion (as in “I felt devastated”).

    Hypothetically, if a population is less than 1/10 above a critical mass, then it could be decimated simultaneously in both the original sense and the modern. It is easy to understand how the word must have made the transition, from “kill a particular proportion” to “kill a large proportion, indiscriminantly, so that the community is significantly weakened and all survivors are left to grieve”. The difference is not so great.

    The irony of kitchenmudge trying to emphasise playfulness as a driver of language innovation while simultaneously citing “decimate” as an example (about as non-playful as you can get), is not lost. There is a striking disconnect between that commenter’s arguments and their examples.

    • cs says:

      The nearest synonym would be “devastate”, but minus the ambiguity with the personal emotion (as in “I felt devastated”).

      I think “decimation” could convey a good deal of personal emotion. So how long, I wonder, before we hear someone say “I felt decimated.” Would that be correct use? Presumably not, unless it caught on, in which case we’d all using the same nonsensical expression. Nonsensical literally, that is. But correct!

  21. kitchenmudge says:

    (responding to John)
    I’m not sure where I did the “make an ass of yourself” warning with the “well-established polyseme”, but ok, I’ll stick myself out there:

    Yes, I am distracted by the common substitution of “decimate” for “destroy”. I hear that “deci”, and my brain has to run an extra little circuit saying “Where’s the ten?” for a millisecond before I can get back to the matter at hand. Are you saying I’m all alone there?

    Yes, I hear “personal growth” from a manager who wants an employee to learn some new duties, and I die a little inside. Am I all alone there?

  22. Stan says:

    kitchenmudge: ‘I’m accused of […] JUDGING!’ No: you disclosed that yourself. ‘We’re talking about the social results of doing something perceived as unnecessary, right?’ No again. The post is about the social and stylistic functions of neologisms, slang, and playful usages some critics would consider unnecessary. Decimate is none of these. Try reading it again, and leave aside the pet axes you want to grind.

    CS: Of course people use different vocabularies in different contexts. No ‘enlightened grammarian’ would dispute this. ‘To insist that on all occasions…’ As John points out, nobody is insisting this. Or even hinting at it. In my earlier reply I said decimate has more than one correct meaning. Please address the points people make, not imaginary ones.
    For what it’s worth, the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed. says 81% of its (generally conservative) Usage Panel in 2005 accepted the broader usage in the sentence ‘The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war’, up from 66% in 1988.

    Adrian: ‘I think there is rarely any genuine ambiguity.’ I don’t recall ever seeing any, though it’s certainly possible. I don’t tend to use the word either, in any of its senses, except when talking about it. As for the ‘striking disconnect’ you mention: I’d have welcomed a good argument about what I wrote, but I’ve recalibrated my expectations.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Do you see the corner you’re painting yourself into by asserting that something is not a neologism simply because it was used long ago? If someone could just find “amazaroonie”, “-age” and “a happy” in some old literature, there went all the specific examples in your post. I’m too lazy to go searching, but they all sound like something Shakespeare might do. Asserting that it can only be new if it was never done before really narrows down the “new” to almost nothing: maybe only to that which fills a gap.

      Tiresome as it is to bring up “decimate” again, Adrian Morgan’s observation that the nearest meaning might be “devastate” points out that the origin of the “destroy” meaning could actually be a deliberate malapropism between two words sounding very much alike, illustrating my first point: Smart people play, dumb people mimic.

      Is cautioning people to be careful about mimicking judging?

      • Stan says:

        No, because it doesn’t exist. Look up the definition of “neologism” in any good dictionary, and try to stop confusing it with “new”. Shakespeare didn’t use happy (n.) or amazeroonie; it only takes a few seconds to check this.

        ‘Is cautioning people to be careful about mimicking judging?’
        No, but saying decimate and co. “are useful in proclaiming oneself a fool”, as you did, is judging.

    • John says:

      To be honest I don’t even get what’s so supposedly logical about the original meaning of “decimate”. If “decima” means “tenth”, “to tenth” a population would logically be either to reduce it by 90%, or to divide it into tenths. Seems to me this hopelessly vague term needs a clearer neologism.

      Dedecimate, perhaps, “to remove a tenth”. “Decimectomy”? “Nonadecimate”?

      Ooh, I’ve got it. “Detenthion.”

    • CS says:

      ‘To insist that on all occasions…’ As John points out, nobody is insisting this. Or even hinting at it. In my earlier reply I said decimate has more than one correct meaning.


      Actually, you said:

      “Decimate has meant ‘destroy (a large portion of)’ for centuries; insisting on its strict sense is pointless.”

      So much for addressing the points that other people make. LOL

  23. kitchenmudge says:

    From Merriam Webster:
    1 a new word, usage, or expression

    How does this help?

  24. kitchenmudge says:

    Since “judge” has several meanings, lending itself very well to red herrings, we’re clearly not going to get anywhere with that. How virtuous of you not to “judge”.

  25. […] Click here for the Article. […]

  26. Links: Jun 3 says:

    […] Stop new wordage? Never gonna happen. In defence of unnecessary words. […]

  27. […] no more trendy than got the morbs, which sounds like a novel clipping but in fact had currency in the late 19th century. To borrow from Buffy, it gives me a happy. […]

  28. […] part of the rough-and-tumble recreation of informal language use, what I’ve described elsewhere as the instinctive inclination to play with […]

  29. […] (and I make them up constantly, on a whim), but in principle I’ll defend even ‘unnecessary’ words. I do like profanilect, for someone’s personal lexicon of profanities. […]

  30. […] bepopulate the language with these beloves again – or beword new ones, whether necessary or not, to suit our […]

  31. […] even if we were to deny ourselves the natural, playful urge to neologise, who would do the testing to which Fowler refers? An elite cadre of grammarians and […]

  32. […] (v.): to make happy [this one gives me a happy, as they said in Buffy] […]

  33. jamie says:

    I loved Buffy when it was first on, partly because of the innovative use of language (such as the use of the -age suffix). I watched a few episodes recently and was surprised that I didn’t notice the language at all; it seems to have become completely normalised (at least to me).

    Do all those complaining abut the use of decimate also object to the word “quarantine” currently being used to mean a period of 14 days isolation (rather than the “correct” period of about 40 days)?

    (And do they also insist that decimate can only be applied to [Roman] soldiers, and not in any other context?)

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting observation about its language. I didn’t watch Buffy much when it first aired, but I can imagine it sounded much more slangy then than it does now, for the reason you say.

      Re decimate: no, strangely enough. And they’re happy with the similarly non-literal names for certain months. Here’s my rule:

  34. Sid says:

    I would certainly describe myself as pretty conservative, when it comes to language, even if people insisting “decimate” must mean “kill out of ten” would definitely be too conservative for me… Nevertheless, I appreciated your article.

    I agree people having fun with the language is totally alright, I’ve created a few neologisms myself, and in several languages (English isn’t my mothertongue). Fun is nothing blamable, after all. Sure, when girly magazines create one neologism per week to encompass the whole array of ways a couple can break up, this is definitely dumb and pedantic, but not very serious.

    Neologisms are already more nefarious when they’re used to mislead or confuse people. This is the case of many “empty words” or “hollow phrases” which are never accurately defined so everyone can project onto it what they think they mean. “Green growth”, “sustainable development”… Their creators certainly meant no harm, but they’re perfect rhetoric material when you just want to easily fool an unsuspecting audience.

    The most blamable case however is semantic shift normalizing some people’s conditions, and thus downplaying them. A typical case coming to my mind is the modern and hyperbolic use of “depressed”, which is a neologism when it simply means “feeling down, blue”. Depression is a clearly defined psychological condition, and saying you’re “depressed” when you just feel sadder than usual is reducing depression to something trivial. I feel like it’s kinda giving the finger to actually depressed people. Not a very nice thing to do.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Vaguely defined phrases and weasel words can certainly be a problem, for the reasons you mention, though these are not the kind of neologism I discuss in the post. The same applies to semantic broadening such as the case of depression. It often happens with medical and scientific terms and is a source of regular misunderstanding and worse.

      As for neologisms in the narrower sense, I don’t see how ‘girly magazines’ creating them frequently is either ‘dumb’ or ‘pedantic’.

  35. […] reaction. Consider what lies behind the urge to universalize your preferences, to reject a word as ‘unnecessary’, to curtail other people’s choice of whatever terms they find best suited to their needs. What […]

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