On 21 July, in a nature preserve in Georgia, US, an animal of rare parentage was born. It soon became the favourite of visitors. The founder of the preserve named it a “zedonk”: It was a cross between a zebra and a donkey.
Zedonk is an example of a process of word-making called “blending”. Lewis Carroll coined several such words for fun, and called them portmanteau words. The most famous of his words is “galumph”, formed from gallop and triumph.
Today, blending is the most productive process in the creation of new words. Typical examples from the past, which show the pure form of blending, are “smog” and “brunch”. “Blog” is from Web log, and has given rise to a second blend in “blogosphere”. If you are outraged by the chaotic scenes in India’s Parliament, you can give it a name with a Miltonic touch, “parliamonium”.
As the year draws to a close, lexicographers and logophiles are busy studying the emerging vocabulary to pick the words of the year.
The new Oxford American Dictionary’s top word of 2010 is “refudiate”, a blend of refute and repudiate. When Sarah Palin called upon peaceful Muslims to refudiate the mosque being built near Ground Zero, there was widespread criticism of the usage. She amended her message and used refute in place of refudiate. Even that didn’t seem right to many, and she then invoked the name of Shakespeare. She said, “English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”
Many of the top words of 2010 are linked to the events that dominated the media during the year. The Beijing Olympics made “Chinglish” a matter of concern for the organisers. “Spillcam”, the top word selected by the Global Language Monitor, designates the camera that brought live images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to TV screens around the world. The same event gave rise to “top kill”, the unsuccessful attempt to plug the oil leak by pumping mud into the well.
When a massive blizzard, the worst to hit Washington in 90 years, virtually shut down the city, US President Barack Obama called it “snowmageddon”, a blend of snow and armageddon. The latter is a Hebrew word meaning final battle, a catastrophically destructive conflict.
To move from blending to other forms of word-making, we have “shellacking”, used by Obama to refer to the beating he received at the hands of the voters. From Spanish came “Los 33”, which means “the thirty-three”, repeatedly appearing in headlines to refer to the trapped Chilean miners and their dramatic rescue.
A Japanese word that has been added recently to the Oxford English Dictionary is “hikikomori”, which means withdrawal. An alarming number of people in Japan, between 100,000 and 320,000 according to a leading psychiatrist, withdraw from society and live a solitary, sequestered life. By definition, a hikikomori is one who has not come out of his house for more than six months. But a New York Times story tells us about a 14-year-old who shut himself in for 13 years.
Business and finance have contributed their share of words to the list. When a recession is followed by a recovery and then by another recession, it is called a “double-dip recession”. What Jerry Welsh called “ambush marketing” is on display at major sports events such as the Olympiads and World Cup matches. You become a victim of ambush marketing if you are an official sponsor of the event and a rival company attempts to somehow associate itself with the event in order to promote its own brand against yours. In South Africa, 36 girls in flashy, orange mini-dresses were evicted during the Holland vs Denmark game, as they were promoting a brand of Dutch beer by ambush marketing. The legality of the practice is still in dispute.
A striking, even audacious, coinage is “turducken”. It stands for de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, which in turn is stuffed into a de-boned turkey. That could well be the last word on blending.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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