Thursday 22 November 2007

Where do words come from?

I’m depressed and the weather is bloody awful. Could be cause and effect, though even I am not so self-obsessed as to imagine that my mood can drag down the climate of an entire planet.

I try to distract myself from obsessive-compulsive searches for things I don’t need by musing about words, with special reference to the way that new ones suddenly enter the language. This year everything we like a lot is “iconic”. What was it before? What were the bereaved before they became “devastated”? Sorrowful, grieving, heartbroken?

My favourite “new” word is “tsunami”, which shot from total obscurity to top of the charts on Boxing Day 2004. I happened to be up early that morning, and distinctly remember the early BBC radio news reports referring to “a giant tidal wave” until someone presumably pointed out that there was a word precisely describing this phenomenon. Distressing reports later emerged of people who knew exactly what the sudden and dramatic low tide betokened, running up the beaches screaming “Tsunami!” and being ignored.

“What’s he saying, darling?”
“It sounds like ‘Toon Army’.”
“He’s never a Newcastle supporter. Where’s his shirt?”
“No, hang on, I think I’ve got it. It’s ‘tsunami’.”
“What’s that when it’s at home?”
“Isn’t it that rather divine kitchen showroom in Wigmore Street?”
“Oh yes! Must be some new type of viral marketing.”
“Of course, that will be it. What the f---…”

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