Shap­ing the English Lan­guage

Evergreen - - Contents - Richard Payne

The English lan­guage is a rich tapestry of words that have been gar­nered over cen­turies — from many dif­fer­ent lan­guages and cul­tures. Its lux­ury is its con­stant evo­lu­tion.

Re­mem­ber your favourite books and how, through words, they trans­port you to an­other world, maybe an­other time, with their depth and de­scrip­tions. Much of our lan­guage has been de­rived from Latin, some from French ( cul- de- sac), oth­ers from In­dia ( bun­ga­low). But have you ever given much thought to how words have come about, or to some of the in­di­vid­u­als who have helped shape our lan­guage?

To­day most new words or mean­ings are ap­pear­ing via tech­nol­ogy, such as the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia, but in the 16th and 17th cen­turies the English lan­guage was still rel­a­tively new, fresh and less rigid. Then it was ripe for the au­thors of the age to cre­ate new words, phrases and ex­pres­sions which have to­day be­come com­mon­place. We ac­cept these for what they are, but we give lit­tle thought to their ori­gins.

It is thought that there are now more than one mil­lion words in the English lan­guage of which the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary lists over 170,000 cur­rent, to­gether with more than 47,000 which are ob­so­lete. How­ever, the av­er­age English per­son will prob­a­bly use only about 25,000 to

30,000 of these, although they will prob­a­bly know more, but just not use them reg­u­larly — if at all.

Words are es­sen­tial tools for life, but they have also evolved over the years, some in quite in­ter­est­ing ways. Back for­ma­tion has cre­ated: laze from lazy and beg from beg­gar. Imi­tat­ing the sounds made brings us: quack, hiss and buzz. An­other form comes from con­tract­ing phrases: good­bye is a con­tracted form of “God- be- with- you” and hello stems from “whole- be- thou” ( from Old English). You can have “day’s eye”, which be­came daisy, whilst “four­teen- night” be­came fort­night.

Many words are named after peo­ple con­nected with some­thing ( these are called eponyms) — one of the most fa­mous prob­a­bly be­ing the sand­wich, named after the Earl of Sand­wich. Oth­ers have un­der­gone quite an evo­lu­tion to be­come the words we use to­day — a good ex­am­ple was the Ara­bic word “naranj” which, through a quite con­vo­luted evo­lu­tion, be­came the Old French word “pomme d’orange” and, fi­nally, our own orange.

More in­cred­i­bly, though, are those words that have com­pletely changed their mean­ings over time. Nice orig­i­nally meant fool­ish or stupid, only tak­ing on its cur­rent pleas­ant mean­ing dur­ing the 18th cen­tury; brave once meant cowardice; and coun­ter­feit used to mean a le­git­i­mate copy!

When look­ing back to words’ cre­ation it is to the great writ­ers of the 16th and 17th cen­tury that we look. At this time new words were be­ing in­tro­duced with great fre­quency in lit­er­ary works, to­gether with new forms of ex­ist­ing ones, new neg­a­tive forms, new com­pounds and new mean­ings.

The great­est English word­smiths of the time were John Mil­ton who, it was said, cre­ated more than 600; Ben Jon­son up­wards of 500; John Donne over 300; and Wil­liam Shake­speare in ex­cess of 200. These ne­ol­o­gists ( word­smiths) can be seen to have cre­ated about 1,700 words. So where

in our mod­ern vo­cab­u­lary would we be with­out them?

John Mil­ton, born in 1608, was an English poet best known for his epic poem Par­adise Lost. To Mil­ton can be cred­ited the fol­low­ing words: de­bauch­ery; un­healthily; pad­lock; dis­mis­sive; ter­rific; com­pla­cency; en­joy­able; sen­su­ous; earth­shak­ing; lovelorn; fra­grance; and pan­de­mo­nium; as well as the phrase “By hook or by crook.” He is also be­lieved to be the first to use the term “space” to mean “outer” space.

The great bard Shake­speare, born in 1564, gave us: ad­dic­tion ( from Othello); as­sas­si­na­tion ( Mac­beth); dis­hearten and swag­ger ( Henry V); event­ful ( As You Like It); fash­ion­able ( Troilus and Cres­sida); un­com­fort­able ( Romeo and Juliet); and man­ager ( A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream).

Later writ­ers such as Charles Dick­ens gave rise to: but­terfin­gers ( Pick­wick Pa­pers); door­mat and ram­page ( Great Ex­pec­ta­tions); and Scrooge ( A Christ­mas Carol). Wil­liam Wordsworth in con­trast gave us pedes­trian; Ge­orge Eliot — chintzy and Lewis Car­roll — chor­tle.

Lan­guage is a won­der­ful cre­ation — even more so if you can add some­thing to it. Think how amaz­ing it would be if you cre­ated a new word! Re­mem­ber, if it’s writ­ten down, or you get enough peo­ple to start us­ing it, the take up would be rel­a­tively quick. You only have to look at tele­vi­sion catch­phrases, or how the in­ter­net has spawned new words we hadn’t heard of 30 years ago, or new mean­ings for old words. Think of the fol­low­ing sen­tence: I at­tached the mouse to my tablet look­ing to see how many bytes I had. I then checked my Twit­ter ac­count and was de­lighted to have five tweets. Not so hap­pily I also found I had been trolled on Face­book.

To some­one 30 years ago the above sen­tence would have made no sense what­so­ever: why would you be at­tach­ing an an­i­mal to a pill and see­ing how many chunks had been taken? Why would you have an ac­count to do with talk­ing and have bird voices on it? As to hav­ing a mon­ster on an ac­count with your face and a book on it ... well! How­ever, to a young­ster to­day it makes com­plete sense.

One thing is cer­tain, lan­guage is al­ways evolv­ing, who knows what looks to­tal non­sense to us to­day could be a com­pletely sen­si­ble state­ment in 20 years’ time! That is the lan­guage of the fu­ture — in which we can all play a part.

Ben Jon­son

John Donne

John Mil­ton

Wil­liam Shake­speare

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