Shaping the English Language
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.