Language Corner

The new Merriam-Webster words

September 23, 2019

Last week, Merriam-Webster inflamed the language world again by adding 533 new words to its dictionary. As usual, the new entries are a mixture of new words and new definitions for words that already existed. Some come of the words from popular culture, some from science, some from business, and some from out of someone’s hat. Here are a few:

Deep state: “an alleged secret network of especially nonelected government officials and sometimes private entities (as in the financial services and defense industries) operating extralegally to influence and enact government policy.” Dictionaries define, but rarely do they give context or connotation for definitions. The concept of a “deep state” is sometimes tied to conspiracy theories, when someone cannot explain or does not want to believe something is happening with which they do not agree. M-W traces “deep state” to 2000, but the term had been used in the late 20th century to describe neofascist Turks seeking, as one newspaper report said, to “cleanse Turkey of leftist influence.” A member of that network, a critic said, “must know a great deal about the connection of the extreme right wing to intelligence services, police and other elements of what we call ‘deep state.’” Today, the term “deep state” is wielded by both the right and the left.

Coulrophobia: “abnormal fear of clowns.” Don’t laugh. Some people have it. The fear is not just of the “evil” clowns, who have appeared in literature for years, including in the  2004 movie Fear of Clowns, in which they’re murderous, and the 1986 Stephen King novel IT, which spawned television and movie iterations. Even clowns intended to bring laughter can bring terror to those with “coulrophobia.” A 1998 reference to the appearance of “coulrophobia” can be found on an internet phobia list, which is the date cited by M-W, but its etymology is masked: M-W says “Various suggested origins for coulro-, as Greek kōlobathristḗs ‘stilt-walker’ … are too phonetically distant to be plausible.” Don’t fool around with those painted faces.

Fatberg: “a large mass of fat and solid waste that collects in a sewer system.” This, at least, is a useful word. The Oxford English Dictionary added it in 2017, calling it “chiefly British,” and traces it to a 2008 news article. When you flush cooking fat, “flushable” wipes, paper towels, and the like, your wastewater treatment plant may not be able to deal with them. Often, they collect and form giant “fatbergs” that can clog sewage treatment facilities and cause havoc. As wrote in 2017, “Few words are as vividly, humorously monstrous as fatberg.

Haircut: “a reduction in the value of an asset.” Get it? An asset gets cut? Haircut? Hee-hee. Business Buzzword Bingo alert! Imagine reading this passage without context: “The objective of the proposal presented in this consultative document is to create incentives for banks to set their collateral haircuts above the floors rather than hold more capital.” This usage seems (we’re thankful to say) limited to business publications, where the jargon is likely to be familiar to its audience. For most journalists, the only “haircuts” allowed should come from licensed professionals with scissors.

Did you get a haircut? No, I got them all cut. That’s a “dad joke,” another new entry: “a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.” BuzzFeed listed some of the funniest in 2015 (or the least funny depending on your sense of humor). Why it’s a “dad joke” and not merely a “stupid joke that a fourth-grader can tell and not get their mouth washed out with soap joke,” who knows. It seems sexist and limiting to allow only men who have fathered children to tell them.

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New words you might never use and survive just fine include “vacay,” a short form of “vacation”; “sesh,” a short form of “session”; and “inspo,” a short form of “inspiration.” Sure, “telephone” was shortened to “phone” with some resistance, but do we really need to say “inspo”? Let those words stay as slang, for now.

We are deliberately ignoring M-W’s addition of the singular “they” as an appropriate pronoun for nonbinary people. First, because it’s about time. Second, because so many words have already been written about it. Including ours. For years.

Instead, we leave you with this tweet and the 1714 outrage by a Quaker religious writer named Thomas Ellwood over the singular “you” instead of “thou.”

Again, The Corrupt and Unsound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number to a Single Person (YOU to One, instead of THOU;) contrary to the Pure, Plain, and Single Language of TRUTH (THOU to One, and YOU to more than One) which had always been used, by GOD to Men, and Men to GOD, as well as one to another, from the oldest Record of Time, till Corrupt Men, for Corrupt Ends, in later and Corrupt Times, to Flatter, Fawn, and work upon the Corrupt Nature in Men, brought in that false and senseless Way of Speaking, YOU to One; which hath since corrupted the Modern Languages, and hath greatly debased the Spirits, and depraved the Manners of Men.

Italics and spacing in the above have been cleaned up for 21st-century readability. Because language changes.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.