Michael on the Evolution of Language

The following is a guest post by Associate Editor Michael Sivilli about creating and using new words.

Ever since the “takeover,” if you will, of text-messaging and similar technology, I have been saying that some day, all our communication will be done in one long word at a time.  No punctuation or capitalization (necessary, at least), no sentences, just one long word at a time.  I actually think we are beyond getting to that level any time soon.  But one thing that occurs fairly often is the creation of a new word or the vocabular function of an existing word.  Yikes!  I just made up a new word.  Should I even be allowed to continue writing this blog now?  And if I hadn’t just admitted my guilt, would you have even stopped to question the legitimacy of the so-called or –accepted word vocabular?  And if I hadn’t been specific, would you have known to which word I was referring?

Besides accepting new grammatical functions for words (yes, “grammatical” is the correct word) simply because the words sound correct in how they are used, existing words are being assigned new meanings, and new “words” are being created today at a very fast rate.  On the former:  My favorite example is the word actionable.  It was some time in the mid 1990s, when the Editorial Assistant in my department came to me with jacket copy for one of my books.  The assistant pointed out the use of the word actionable as an adjective describing “being capable of achieving positive results.”  We pointed out to the writer of the copy that actionable actually means “subject to affording ground for an action or suit at law,” per the tenth edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1993).  The argument ensued that times have changed, and that our department needs to “get with it.”  It basically left us with our arms up in the air.  We tried, but lost the argument.  The word appeared on the book jacket, and has in other places ever since.  The so-called “new meaning” was even officially accepted by Merriam-Webster, and appeared in the eleventh edition of their Collegiate Dictionary as “capable of being acted on”.  A bit vague, but the idea is there.

Fast-forwarding to today, we recently published The AMA Dictionary of Business and Management.  The only defense I have to what I am about to divulge is what I tell all my authors.  That is, that I do not read books assigned to me from beginning to end.  My job as an Associate Editor is to review any parts of a book that need attention from the copy editor, proofreader, and even the indexer.  And an additional note to this story is that all three of the aforementioned personnel are freelancers (i.e., they are independent service providers, which we employ on individual project assignment bases).  So while working on The AMA Dictionary of Business and Management (a wonderful volume full of definitions heard and used in business and management), I ran across the entry permalancer, which immediately drew my interest.  The definition listed in the book is:  “Blend of the words permanent and freelancer; basically, a freelancer who has no exit date.”  Now, I could take the time here, and dissect this to no end (e.g., what is meant by “no exit date”?).  I must assume that the latter means hired until further notice rather than referring to a deadline.  But I digress.  I had never seen nor heard that word before, nor did I approach the author about it.  I basically gave in at this point, and figured that this is just the trend now: Make up a word, and if it sounds good, it will be understood and accepted at some point and at least to some degree.

Never wanting to become a part of that trend, I was on the phone (a “hip” phrase that was probably frowned upon in the early 1900s) recently with one of our freelancers, requesting that he send me a group of electronic files.  Knowing that the files were too large to be e-mailed (an accepted verb for years now, by the way), I found myself saying, “Just ‘boxnet’ them to me,” referring to the online service of Box.com (formerly named Box.net), which allows for the sending and receiving of large and/or bulk quantities of electronic files.  The freelancer nonchalantly agreed to do so, fully understanding what I meant, and ended the conversation with “Have a nice day!”

When I hung up the phone, I thought, Had I become one of “them” [whoever they are]?  Not really.  One must accept that as technology advances more and more, our vocabulary will expand in different ways.  To conclude that using existing words to create new meanings is wrong, is, well, wrong.  Others might say it is lazy.  It is not.  And neither is creating new words to represent advances in technology and such.  I used to smirk at the terms blog and podcast and their various forms (blogging and podcasting).  Both were essentially new words created to represent seemingly existing definitions.  What I ultimately realized is that each word was actually created to advance and/or extend an old meaning or definition.  For example, the argument could be made that a blog is nothing more than a diary or account or story, and a podcast nothing more than an audio or video recording.  But one must understand that each word actually has more meaning than that.  It was the fact that each concept became available electronically and via the web somehow, which called for the creation of the new words.

As for existing words:  Go back to my original reference to “text-messaging.” The word text became a verb and even incorporated a gerund, giving an old word essentially new, useful, and necessary functions and meaning.

My idea of a one-long-word-at-a-time form of communication is probably centuries away.  But nonetheless, I need to get going now.  I have to boxnet an actionable text message to a permalancer who just texted me.

Thank you, Michael!

Michael Sivilli has been an Associate Editor with AMACOM, the books publishing division of the American Management Association, since 1988.

Earlier Posts:
Michael on Permissions
Michael on Corrections and Galley Proofs
Michael on Authors and Indexes

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