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Daum: New words to live by

Every year around this time, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary releases a list of words that will be added to its next edition. It's lucky that the announcement comes toward the end of August, when most humans want to go on vacation and most columnists, therefore, need to write an "evergreen."

Evergreen is journalist lingo for a topic that, like its namesake, is always in season (or, at least, one that won't go stale immediately). I suppose "frozen casseroles" could also work, but for whatever reason, that term never took off.

So this column is the casserole I made early and lovingly preserved for you, since at this moment I am sleeping in a tent or getting my credit card declined at a Holiday Inn Express, which is how journalists vacation these days.

In my defense, however, I will say that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which makes its annual update more newsworthy than usual. To celebrate, it is welcoming 400 new entries to its pages. A brief sample:

• Mankini: a brief one-piece swimsuit for men, with a T-back.

• Jeggings: tight-fitting stretch pants for women, styled to resemble a pair of denim jeans.

• Denialist: someone who refuses to accept a verifiable reality because of discomfort or willful ignorance.

• Woot: expression of elation, enthusiasm or triumph.

If you haven't heard those words, don't fret. Preliminary research (a.k.a. Googling) suggests that the bulk of "jeggings" usage comes from fashion and style blogs aimed at young people, "woot" is in heavy rotation on comment boards on tweets and "mankini" is almost exclusively a reference to "Borat" (as in Sasha Baron Cohen's 2006 mockumentary) and not really applicable to everyday life.

More likely to be used on a daily (hourly? constant?) basis are words and abbreviations recently ushered in by texting and social media that favor brevity. LOL (laugh out loud), FYI (for your information) and OMG (oh my God) have made the COD cut.

But don't go assuming that Oxford's lexicographers have sold their soul to curry favor with today's youngsters.

Back in 1911, its first edition prompted chatter (and, undoubtedly, wry newspaper columns) by including cutting-edge jargon such as "flapper" and "motorist." The COD's august older cousin, the Oxford English Dictionary, is all about the history and majesty of the language. This one is all about currency — or something close to it.

Over the decades, the new words function as a sort of timeline of the preoccupations and proclivities of the English-speaking world. The 1950s, for example, saw the addition of such words as "antibiotic" and "clone." In the 1960s, "breathalyzer," "astronaut" and "supermarket" were added. The sixth edition of the dictionary, published in 1976, included the phrase "switched on."

Surprisingly, "pizza" wasn't included until 1982 and "nacho" until 1990 (silly Brits, so behind!). By the mid-'90s, "wind farm" and "repetitive strain injury" were in the mix. "Botox" came in 2001, "designer baby" in 2004 and "civil partnership" and "nuclear option" in 2006. "E-reader" and "subprime" were added in 2008.

Winston Churchill once said that "the short words are the best and the old words best of all."

He might have been right on the first score, as the apparent indispensability of LOL and FYI would seem to attest.

But as dear and delicious as old words can be, the truth about language is that, like the proverbial shark, it must keep moving forward to survive.

We may scoff at the verbal tics of today's irony-drenched, screen-obsessed youths. We may associate them with the decline of civilized culture. But deep down we know we need their words. We need them because we need civilization to keep evolving.

We need, quite simply, new fashions, art forms and abstractions, and the new words to go with them. Besides, as much as these words represent laziness (LOL) or silliness (mankinis) or regrettable trends (jeggings?), they also represent the thing most of us pine for even more than the verbiage of our own era: youth.

In other words, if as a topic the COD's annual coronation of new words is an evergreen, the words themselves are an antidote to evergreens. They're so ripe their sell-by date might as well be a neon sign.

By the time you read this, "woot" may be as anachronistic as "far out." But to that, all I can say is I'm a proud denialist. Which is another word for a journalist on vacation.

mdaum@latimes.columnists.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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