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I spy... a new word!

January 16, 2003 16:55 IST

Vidya Srinivasa Rao

"A language is never in a state of fixation, but is always changing; we are not looking at a lantern-slide but at a moving picture."   - Andrew Lloyd James, Welsh linguist, The Broadcast Word, 1935

English is a growing language. New words and phrases emerge everyday at a pace that the Oxford English Dictionary and the Webster's cannot keep up with. While these dictionaries wait for years before they consider words 'fit to publish', the Web is working faster to bring these new terms to light. is one of the largest sites keeping track of emerging vocabulary of the English language. It is maintained by Paul McFedriesauthor of many computer and English language books (including a few of the 'idiot's guidesseries books). New terms are added to the site regularly.

Back in 1996, Wordspy began as a mailing list where each day McFedries would send out an interesting word to a few friends and readers. "After I'd accumulated a few dozen words, I created the site to give people a record of what had been posted and make it possible for other people to join the list," says McFedries.

The layout of the site is simple and easy to navigate. The homepage features 'Word of the Day', 'Top 10 words', 'Last 10 posted words' and provides links to other sections on the site like the alphabetical index, keyword search, webmasters favourite words and some of the neologisms coined by McFedries himself.  Words are also sorted chronologically and by subject.

Many new words may become household terms in a few years.  Some of them are here only for a short while. McFedries describes language as volcanic mountain constantly spewing out new words and phrases. "Some of them are blown away by the winds and others are linguistic lava that slides down the volcano and eventually hardens as a permanent part of the language. Both types of ejecta are inherently creative, so I'm interested in them equally," he explains.

He finds most of these words through his own reading. For the citations, he uses Lexis-Nexis, Dow Jones News Retrieval and Electric Library. He also uses Google and his local library.

According to him, new words are a reflection of what's going on in the culture. "For example, if the culture is generating new terms such as 'work-life balance', 'joy-to-stuff ratio', and 'affluenza', to me it's an indication that a significant number of people are looking to slow down and live simpler, less materialistic lives."

Word spy is also about celebrating the joy of language and its owner likes to feature new words that are clever puns or are otherwise amusing. An example from McFedries: The word 'smoke-easy' -- a place where cigarettes are smoked illegally, a fun play on 'speak-easy'. Another example is 'smoking memo' -- a memo, letter, or e-mail message that contains irrefutable evidence of a crime, playing off the well-known phrase, 'smoking gun'.

Wordspy has given emerging words a new life. This site supports the assertion that quality writing not only involves the use of proper syntax and sentence structure, but also using good words. It even provides an updated list of words and expressions that's not yet in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Take for instance the term 'Information Tamer'. According to Word Spy, this term is a noun and means 'a technical writer who specialises in explaining complex concepts from fields such as science and computing'. This term was first mentioned in NZ Infotech Weekly on Janaury 29, 2001.

'Dellionaireis a noun and means 'a rich person whose wealth is based on the stocks he owns at Dell Computer Corporation'. An 'Internot(noun) is a person who refuses to use the Internet.

McFedries calls Wordspy 'lexpionage' (a word he coined himself), the sleuthing of new words and of old words used in new ways. His favourite word is obviously 'logophilia', the love of words.

There are nearly 2000 words and expressions in this collection. Every term has a page dedicated to it. This page has all the information of the word or expression: the figure of speech, what the word means, its usage, citations and a backgrounder. Earliest known usage of some words is also included. In some cases, history about the entry is also provided.

One can also become a member of the mailing list 
for daily email updates of Wordspy. Word spy will also be published as a book by early 2004.

Apart from words and phrases, the site also has a  'Words About Wordssection that has a collection of proverbs and quotations related to words and languages. You can browse through these either by author or quotation.

One of the quotes from this extensive list by Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad goes like this: "He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word..."

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