Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Not so redonkulous? New words in English

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography

Holofernes in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lll/lll.5.1.html)

While neologisms such as ‘redonkulous’ may at first seem, quite frankly, redonkulous, it’s odd how they no longer sound silly once they’ve become established. In the above passage from Love’s Labour’s Lost, while words such as ‘phantasimes’ that are no longer used (or, indeed, may never have been except by Holofernes, the pompous schoolmaster) sound absurd, others that were included to mock the schoolmaster’s pedantry – such as ‘verbosity’, ‘abhor’ and ‘fanatical’ – do not seem so laughable today.

The origin of ‘redonkulous’ is debated, as indeed, is its spelling (‘ridonkulous’, ‘ridonkulus’?). Some people claim it was coined by an American TV show in the early 2000s, and Urban Dictionary has entries for both the ‘-ous’ spellings dating back to 2004, but an anonymous Wikipedia contributor claims it was used by American university students in the 1990s, and another attributes it to a specific student in Massachussetts in 1986.

As the ‘redonkulous’ example illustrates, exactly how, when and why certain new words catch on while others don’t is something of a mystery. Fortunately, the linguistic processes for forming them are less obscure. At the top of the creativity scale are new coinages – entirely new words, often for entirely new concepts, such as ‘nylon’ in the 1930s. A slightly simpler technique is portmanteau words, or combining pre-existing words to create new ones, such as ‘staycation’ (‘stay’ + ‘vacation’) and ‘glamping’ (‘glamorous’ + ‘camping’). This is, however, a bit more creative than the more conventional methods of making new derivations by adding accepted prefixes and suffixes – as in ‘linesperson’, ‘biomanufacturing’ and ‘to unlike’ – or of simply borrowing a foreign word, such as ‘hygge’ or ‘chana dal’. As they become more established, foreign words may be naturalised by taking on a more ‘English’ pronunciation and losing their accents, and, similarly, proper nouns may be converted to common ones, such as ‘to google’ in the late 1990s.

However, even once they’ve entered the language, words don’t often stay put. Of particular interest to us as proofreaders are the processes of semantic drift (words changing their meaning) and conversion (words changing their class, such as nouns becoming verbs), since the notion of the ‘correct’ usage changes with the times. For instance, if ‘to google’ is acceptable, what about ‘to facebook’ (yes, but with a capital ‘F’) or ‘to snapchat’ (not yet, but it’s no doubt on its way). ‘Disinterested’ is now firmly in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym of ‘uninterested’, and a secondary definition of ‘literally’ is ‘(Informal) Used for emphasis while not being literally true’! In 2017 ‘woke up’ apparently became acceptable as an adjective – so whether you love them, tolerate them or hate them, usages such as ‘I am sat at my desk’ and ‘she was stood by the window’ are sure to follow shortly!



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Posted in Etymology, Vocabulary