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2010 a year for playing games with words

By Robert Beard, Special to CNN
  • Robert Beard says in 2010 language battered as new uses, misuses zoomed around net
  • He says no worries: Most new words are made up "nonce" words and won't stick around
  • Palin's "refudiate" is a made-up word that has been around awhile, he says
  • Beard: Misused terms Tea Party, "friend," "man up" not a fun way to play with words

Editor's note: Robert Beard taught linguistics at Bucknell University for 35 years. He runs, a free online language resource center, writes a language blog for the site and sends out a "Good Word" every day to 25,000 subscribers. He is the author of "The 100 Funniest Words in English" and "The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English."

(CNN) -- Each year the English language takes a fresh beating, but in 2010 it was intensified more than ever by the widening reach and quickening pace of the internet.

New words and constructions like "Obamacare," "WikiLeaks," "lamestream," "shovel-ready," "sexting," and many others like them were uttered or typed and in minutes spread across the globe.

Makes one wonder: Have we been beating English into a new shape, or just beating it up? There is, after all, a difference between the games we play with new words, which can be amusing -- even though they often get out of hand -- and the more subtle changes that often lead to confusion and offensiveness.

But I think we need not worry too much about the new words entering or trying to enter the language. Most of them are what linguists call "nonce" words, words that someone dreams up for the nonce, which is to say, for a particular occasion. A nonce word usually vanishes as soon as the occasion that motivated its creation passes.

For example? Even though the East was buried under snow over the holidays, few invoked "snowmageddon," the off-the-cuff creation from last winter's blizzard that was created by smushing (smashing into a mush) the two words "snow" and "Armageddon."

Its nonce moment had passed.

This year saw a rich array of word types emerge in the language; some have a good chance of sticking, while others have very little. Here's a sampling:

Portmanteau words

Noisemakers get makeovers

Coined by Lewis Carroll, the term "portmanteau word" is one that carries two words inside itself. Portmanteaus may simply be funny games we play with words or errors that we should avoid.

When we speak, we go to our mental dictionaries for the right words. If we find two words with similar meanings or pronunciations, we have to make a split-second choice of which to use. President George W. Bush's mind once found itself having to choose between "miscalculated" and "underestimated" as he spoke, but failed to reach a decision in time, so he uttered "misunderestimated".

Sarah Palin's famous portmanteau "refudiate" is similar. "Refudiate" is a speech error that many others before her have made by blending "refute" and "repudiate." That it has been around for ages but has yet to make it into a dictionary tells us that it is a speech error we should stop discussing and let pass for what it is: a funny but erroneous portmanteau.

Borrowed words

The stand-out borrowed word this year was "vuvuzela" or simply "vuvu," the two-foot long "stadium horn" tooted by most of the fans at the South African World Cup match this year. English borrows most of its words from European languages, so the nerve-wracking honking of these horns at the World Cup match had to make a great impression to be picked up by English.

Compound words

Every year brings a slew of new compounds and 2010 was no exception. A "double-dip" recession was on everyone's minds as the government tried to avoid one by funding "shovel-ready" projects, projects that were past the planning phase. Of course, there were others, but these are the most memorable.

New uses of old words

While nonce words and portmanteaus generally don't last, the misuse of the words already in the language does. I still cringe to hear "reticent" used to mean "hesitant" rather than "reluctant to speak."

This does not mean that all change is to be avoided. When we extend meanings -- say, of "memory" to computer memory, even "mouse" to a computer mouse -- that is OK because we are only adding a clear figurative sense to the literal meaning of these words. English is already loaded with this kind of thing.

However, we are over-stretching the language by using "friend" as a verb when we talk about "friending" and "unfriending" someone on Facebook. Since friends on Facebook are not real friends in the usual sense, we probably need a word distinct from the normal word, "befriend," for referring to Facebook friends. But we do have other words for this process, words like "add to" and "block from." Why bend "friend"?

For the same reason, the phrase "man up," as to man up to a challenge, displeases me. Sarah Palin implored the GOP to "man up" and support the new right-wing Tea Party agenda, while Joe Scarborough implored the GOP to "man up" to Sarah Palin. This phrase is offensive because of its blatant sexism, the assumption that men are distinguished from women by being strong and brave. So, what is the GOP doing now, womaning down?

Tea Party

The year's biggest misuse, however, may be of the term "tea party" itself. By applying the words for one of the most civil acts of gentility to a rather rowdy political movement, we stretch the language too far. Tea parties should continue to be the gracious high teas of polite society and the make-believe parties of children playing with tea sets given them by their grandmothers.

Of course, the Tea Party claims to take its name from the Boston Tea Party, when a few colonialist men, disguised as Indians, threw British tea into Boston Harbor to protest British taxation without representation in the British Parliament.

The comparison quickly fails, however: Those in the Tea Party movement are represented in the U.S. government, so the only parallel between the two is the disguise of the colonialists and the disguise of the Tea Party as only a grassroots movement.

Playing with new words in any year does no damage to the English language. It is often another way humor is created with and from language -- and it goes away soon enough.

Misusing the words we have, however, does cause problems, because it leads to confusion in communication, if not offense to those who try to use language clearly, precisely and appealingly. And that's not a fun word game at all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Beard.