Monthly Archives: December 2014

Chosen Words

Chosen WordsChosen Words – Ivor Brown. Cover by Derek Birdsall, 1961.

Chosen Words is a collection of notes about various words in the English language from accidie to zymurgy. There is no particular theme linking the words, other than that they interested Ivor Brown.

Brown, a Shakespearian scholar writing in the mid-twentieth century, clearly loved words. Chosen Words is part of a series of eight books with titles that would have impressed the producers of the Carry On films: A Word in Your Ear; I Give You My Word; No Idle Words. You get the idea…

The notes, supported by quotations, touch on etymology, construction, and history; but Brown is particularly interested in how the words were used when he wrote his books. And of course, had he been able to think of enough punning titles – and been granted immortality – he could still have been writing them today. This is because the English language, unlike most Shakespearian scholars, has a remarkable capacity to evolve in a very short space of time.

spamThe name for a newly coined word or phrase that is in the process of entering common use – but that has not yet been accepted into mainstream language – is neologism. It can be a new use of an existing word (spam), a combination of existing words (website) or an acronym (scuba).

Neologisms often come from popular literature: cyberspace, McJob or nymphet. Sometimes the title of a book becomes the neologism, for example, Catch-22. Occasionally, it’s the author’s name; Orwellian or Kafkaesque. Another category is words derived from famous characters in literature:  quixotic or scrooge.

DonquixoteThe last two examples demonstrate that no one, to my knowledge, has defined the amount of time a neologism has to exist before it is considered fully part of the language.

But a word – in any language – isn’t just a sound or a handful of letters; what makes it interesting, what makes it a word, is that it has a meaning. And, if a neologism gives a name to, or describes, something that exists but that has no name or description, it must be considered a useful addition to the language.

So, here’s my own attempt to add something useful to the English language – relaxaction – a word which, reassuringly, is not recognized by the Microsoft spellchecker. Relaxaction, like spellchecker, is a classic, compound neologism. I use it to describe the act of relaxing the mind or body through some kind of physical action, as opposed to relaxation which means doing as little as possible.

It’s a concept most people recognize, although the action of choice differs from one person to another. For me it’s chopping logs. Others have suggested mowing the lawn; having vigorous (or not so vigorous) sex; going for a run, singing in a choir or driving off-road on a remote dirt track in Oman.

If you’d like to add your own favourite form of relaxaction to the list, please let me know.