Back in August, I logged into facebook to see a status update from one of my younger cousins that read, “Gross! Didn’t anyone tell Miley Cyrus that you don’t twerk on national TV?”
“Huh?” I thought to myself, “What is twerking?” I try to keep up on what the kids are saying these days, but I’d never heard that one. Google led me to the Oxford Dictionary Online, which had recently added the word “twerk,” as well as “food baby,” “jorts,” and “girl crush.” (It also led me to some visual images and videos that illustrated the twerking and that I wish I could unsee.)
I have an advanced degree that included years of study in applied linguistics and currently teach Intro to Linguistics to future teachers at a local university. I find these new additions to the language completely delightful and entertaining, while (as you can read in the comments on the link above) others see this as the end of the English language and high culture as we know it. If you’re like me, then you can consider yourself a linguistic descriptionist, or someone who accepts and is interested in language change and variation as it is used in context. A prescriptionist, on the other hand, would argue that these “new words” constitute transitory slang that has no place being accepted into the hallowed and sacred English lexicon. If you tend more toward the prescriptive, you are likely to get fairly worked up about what follows here.
English is one of the most creative and productive languages in the world, with one of the largest vocabularies. There are a number of processes through which new words enter English. We frequently borrow from other languages (croissant, pretzel), coin brand new words (kleenex, xerox), or use compounding (wallpaper, sunburn). We use a process called clipping to shorten words (gasoline=gas) and processes like backformation and conversion to take one type of word and put it into another category of word, like when the noun “television” led to the verb “televise” and the verb “to spy” led to the noun “a spy.” Acronyms like CD and VCR are used in common language, while some acronyms actually become words (laser=light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
By far my favorite way that we add new words to English is through blending, or what Lewis Carroll named “portmanteau words,” in which the beginning of one word is combined with the end of another to coin a new word. Examples of this are “chillax,” “bromance,” “frenemy,” and one from the Oxford Dictionary Online’s new list, “jorts.”
“Jorts” is a portmanteau word combing “jeans” and “shorts.” When I asked my students, who are mostly in their early 20s, why in the world “jorts” would be on a list published in August of 2013, they informed me that jorts are actually a hot new fashion trend for this fall for both men and women.
Men in jorts?! WTF? Are these millenials messing with me? Wait until Part 2 of this series, in which I will summarize for you their instructive and hilarious explanation of the precise meaning and usage of “girl crush.”
(All of the examples in this post came from The Study of Language by George Yule, which is one of the textbooks I’m using this semester and a great basic introduction to linguistics if you want more.)