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New words, endangered words

20 November, 2009

Last January, I posted the Macquarie Dictionary’s new words for 2008. Now the New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its shortlist of new words for 2009, plus its  Word of the Year. At the other end of the vocabulary spectrum are words that dictionaries plan to remove because no one uses them.

Word of the Year: Unfriend

unfriend: to remove someone as your friend on a social networking site.  Example: I’d like to unfriend my parents from my Facebook page.

The dictionary’s senior lexicographer notes that unfriend is an unusual verb because it is formed from a noun. This construction has not been used for years, perhaps since the 17th century. Most English words with the prefix un are adjectives, e.g. ‘unhealthy’, plus a few verbs, e.g. ‘unpack’.


What other new words were in the running for the 2009 Word of the Year? Here are a few. How many do you know? How many do you  use? I’ve put a tick against the ones I’ve heard of.

hashtag– a # [hash] sign added to a word or phrase that enables Twitter users to search for similar postings on the Twitter site. I use Twitter but had no idea about the hashtag.

intexticated – distracted while driving because texting on a mobile phone. 

netbook – a small portable laptop computer. And do I long for one? You bet!

sexting – sending sexually explicit texts and pictures by mobile phone. I have noticed that newspapers are using this term.

funemployed – taking advantage of being newly unemployed to have fun or pursue other interests.

birther – a conspiracy theorist who challenges Obama’s birth certificate: Is he a US citizen–or not?

choice mom – a person who chooses to be a single mother.

death panel – a theoretical body that–when care is rationed–determines which patients deserve to live.

√? teabagger -protestor against Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, who may take part in Tea Party protests, an allusion to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. (Be careful when you use this term. In other contexts, it refers to a type of sex act or sexual hazing.)

deleb – a dead celebrity.

tramp stamp – a tattoo on the lower back, usually on a woman.

Twitter and Obama have been the source of two major clusters of new words this year.

  • Twitterisms: tweeps, twitterati, twitterverse, retweet, tweetaholic, and twibe.
  • Obamaisms: Obamanomics, Obamaland, Obamania, Obamalicious, Obamacracy.

Endangered Words

Last year, there was a move in Great Britain to save endangered words. The Collins Dictionary planned to remove little-used words to make space for 2,000 new ones. The words on the hit list could be saved if they appeared at least six times in the Collins corpus. (A corpus is a huge collection of recent spoken and written material from a number of sources.)

Times Online encouraged British celebrities to save an endangered word by using it in their speeches, articles and discussions. Comedian and writer Stephen Fry adopted fubsy, meaning ‘short and stout’. Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate and ‘a very keen bird-watcher’, chose skirr, the ‘whirring sound’ made by the wings of flying birds.  And a Federal politician chose niddering, i.e., ‘cowardly’, which he said has ‘a sort of withering contempt about it that is useful for political invective’.

My WordPress spellchecker did not accept any of the new or the old words.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Pine permalink
    28 November, 2009 11:09 pm

    Just love your poem! It contains a lot of true and sadness. Made me think sometimes when you do things with out thinking.


    • 29 November, 2009 11:18 am

      Yes, I like how Juliet Wilson captured the change in relationships when short and superficial Facebook messages replace in-depth conversations. I am tempted to ‘unfriend’ people who never send me anything personal but keep me on their bulkl mailing list for electronic chain letters and jokes. Some of them are relatives–is it possible to ‘unrelative’ as well?


  2. 23 November, 2009 8:09 am

    I’ve decided to adopt “skirr” – it’s lovely….


    • 23 November, 2009 1:15 pm

      Yes, it’s a good one. I can even have nice thoughts about the bandit-like sulphur-crested cockatoos when I think of the flock ‘skirring’ along.


  3. 20 November, 2009 8:42 pm

    This is great, I’ve just written a poem about being unfriended. Skirr was my choice of endangered word and I wrote a poem including that word to highlight its state of endangerment.

    I like the idea of funemployment…..


    • 21 November, 2009 8:27 am

      I’d love to see your ‘unfriend’ poem. Are you putting it on your blog sometime? [Addition: Found it!
      Maybe people will start naming their children and pets after the endangered words to keep the words alive. Instead of ‘Faith Jones’ or ‘Capability Brown’ we could start seeing ‘Skirr Jones’ and ‘Embranglement Brown’. ‘Funemployment’ gave me pause. For many, the two terms would never come together. But there’s many stories about people being laid off who decide to do what they love, in some form or another. A recently unemployed guy in my writing group was writing what he hoped would become a bestseller, as a way of getting back on his feet.


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