Words gone astray

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Words and phrases that have long been in circulation sometimes sneak around and bite you on the backside.
I usually celebrate the vernal equinox by watching for new words and phrases admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary long before they come into common use.
This year the chief new word was “selfie.” I thought it had to do with tittering British school girls, but suddenly I see or hear it everywhere, and it has nothing to do with young girls. It’s a comfortable word, easy to use, fairly organic.

In case this was as unimportant to you as it must have been to me, it merely means taking your own picture with a cell phone by holding it at arm’s length and aimed at your face. Not earthshaking, but I guess it has a use.
At least it is not so annoying as an Ipad the size of a magazine held before the photographer’s face, blocking everyone else from seeing the subject with his or her naked eye or other photographic device.

Other words that are similarly easy to use are from the German, and since the Germans borrow from the English, there is no rancor – fair is fair. I think that our recent usurpation of the adjective über (over-the-top) makes us about even.

Ohrwurm is a catchy tune that gets stuck in the brain or a tune that rapidly obsesses an entire population (literally, an ear worm).
Gemütlichkeit is already comfortable for non-German speakers: feeling comfortable, as though in one’s own home.
Schwack looks like it might be handy. It’s an adjective meaning a large amount.

English has just about a million words now, more than any other language by nearly 100 percent. Who decides how many words to cull from the list lest it becomes top-heavy?
No puzzle, that. As long as books and blogs and technology are read or spoken, there will ever be a depository for words new and old. Just because it isn’t used in conversation any more doesn’t mean it will be erased from the existing lexicon.

Future glossaries are in no danger as long as Grandma’s best gingerbread recipe is passed from generation to generation.
E.B. White, half of the guard-dog team that contributed so much to language purity. While browsing through my arsenal of English books, I found my cherished copy of his and coauthor William Strunk’s immortal work “The Elements of Style.” I say “immortal” advisedly, because this little book is still in print and probably will be long after computers make paper and ink obsolete. Their mantra was the KISS rule – “Keep it simple, Stupid.”

“All words are good, but some are better than others,” I paraphrase.
And “Why use a $20 word when a 10-center is close at hand and probably livelier? A word may be in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
Keep it brief, keep it simple, is the message. Or to quote a bumper sticker I saw on a reporter’s car (my personal favorite – the sticker, not the car): “Eschew Obfuscation.”
That goes for voluble columnists as well.

[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]

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