Sports car

New vocabulary in the twentieth century

Compared with earlier eras, English was fairly stable grammatically, orthographically, and phonologically during the twentieth century. Inevitably there were shifts in the fine detail of the language, including:

  • The spread of may have into territory formerly occupied by might have.
  • A tendency for American –or to replace British –our in the Australian English spelling of words such as colour and labour.
  • The start of the apparent long-term decline of the hyphen in compound words.
  • The use of a rising, ‘question’ intonation at the end of ordinary declarative sentences.

Here, however, there was nothing seismic. To that extent, a time-travelling Anglophone of the late-nineteenth century would find him- or herself in reasonably familiar territory at the start of the twenty-first. The vocabulary, though, might well faze them. The English lexicon has expanded hugely over the past hundred years.

The Oxford English Dictionary records about 185,000 new words, and new meanings of old words, that came into the English language between 1900 and 1999. That leaves out of account the so-called lexicaldark matter’. These were words not common enough to catch the lexicographers’ attention or, if they did, to compel inclusion; words perhaps that were never even committed to paper (or any other recording medium). Even so, those 185,000 on their own represent a 25 per cent growth in English vocabulary over the century—making it the period of most vigorous expansion since that of the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Scientific and technical vocabulary

Given the diversification of the English language in the twentieth century, and the sheer increase in the number of people using it, it would be surprising if it had not grown lexically. On top of that, the century’s scientific discoveries and technological developments kept up a constant demand for new vocabulary. In its first decade, for instance, English had to provide the basis of a wholly new terminology for both aviation and the motor car. It responded with a plethora of words which are very much still with us today. A significant proportion of this vocabulary was adopted from French, France being a leading innovator in the relevant technologies, but in general English did not rely so much on foreign borrowing to increase its resources as it had in previous centuries.

The vocabulary of aviation and the motor car
aerodrome
accelerator
airliner
dashboard
fuselage
garage
hangar
limousine
pilot
motorway
plane
speedometer

 

Blends, acronyms, and other ways of forming new words

By far the commonest way of creating new words is to put old ones into new combinations, and almost three quarters of twentieth-century English neologisms originated in this way (double-glazing, dust bowl, Dutch elm disease). One particular sort of compound has been highly characteristic of the post-1900 period: the blend. To create a blend, you concertina two words together, so that the end of the first merges into the start of the second: for example, motor + hotel becomes motel. They often have the air of journalistic jokes, but several blends (such as Chunnel, pulsar, and stagflation) have established themselves in the language. The 1980s and 1990s in particular saw a rash of blends for cross-genre media concepts like docusoap and infotainment.

But perhaps the century’s most notable new contribution to English word formation was the acronym, which is a string of initial letters pronounced as a single word. They were virtually nonexistent at its start, but by the 1990s they seemed to have permeated almost every aspect of modern life.

Some twentieth-century acronyms
AIDS
acquired immune-deficiency syndrome
Anzac
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps
laser
light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
PIN
personal identification number
scuba
self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

 

Other high-profile types of word formation in modern English are conversion, in which the grammatical function of an existing word is changed (for example, ‘to access a file’, where a noun becomes a verb, or Red ‘a Communist,’ where an adjective becomes a noun), and back-formation, in which a new word is created by deleting a suffix from an existing word (producing, for example, destruct from destruction and escalate from escalator). The latter proliferated especially in US military and scientific jargon.

Some twentieth-century back-formations
Back-formation
Source word
automate
automation
choreograph
choreography
complicit
complicity
flab
flabby
sleaze
sleazy
surreal
surrealism
surveil
surveillance
televise
television
tweeze
tweezers

 

See more from Twentieth-century English