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March 31, 2002 - New Words - 2002-04-02

INTRO: As long has language has existed, it has been in a constant state of change, and as long there have been dictionaries lexicographers have been trying to keep up with those changes. James Donahower reports on the flood of new words entering the latest edition of a major U-S dictionary.

TEXT: A bumper crop of new words and expressions has insinuated itself into the English lexicon this year, words that Americans use regularly now, but that our word processing programs do not yet recognize: Taleban, weaponize, hawala, and burkha.

These particular words were brought to the linguistic forefront in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. They are also among the new entries in the latest edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary. The dictionary's senior editor, Steve Kleinedler, says this is a recurring phenomenon.

KLEINEDLER: "In the history of the 20th century, there are certain events that are so powerful or so prominent or so newsworthy that they create language change. Watergate (the Nixon White House scandal of the 1970s, triggered by a break-in at Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex in Washington) is a good example in that it gave us a productive suffix, the '-gate' suffix, that is now readily applied to most political scandals. These events are not entirely common, but they do happen from time to time. The September 11th tragedy is probably, since the Kennedy assassination, the single most horrific event that has locked the nation into a single cataclysmic event, causing people to focus on the same concepts at the same time."

As the world gravitates increasingly towards the use of the English language, many of these new terms will become familiar even to non-English speakers, according to David Barnhart. He is the editor of the Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly compilation of new words.

Many of the terrorist-attack-related entries are non-English in origin, as it happens, and will look and sound very much the same in other languages. But Mr. Barnhart says the most frequently used of these new entries, the term "nine-11", written numerically with a dash, will not be readily recognized in most of the world.

BARNHART: "Most people in the world write dates such as September 11th, '11 September.' So for many Europeans, for example, it is '11-9,' not '9-11.'"

Not all recent additions to the English lexicon are related to September 11th. Other new terms vying for a place in English dictionaries, terms which may even be unfamiliar to some Americans, include: "sports-rage," "chicken pox party," and "Enron-ese."

But Mr. Barnhart says some of the strangest new terms derive from the world of medicine.

BARNHART: "There are a bunch of medical terms that have come up, things like 'Dr. Strangelove Syndrome.' In a person who is injured, one hand may start reacting violently to the other. It has been described as one hand attacking the other."

New words are born, old words die, and rarely-used words are launched into the spotlight by calamitous events, medical breakthroughs, or even new trends in music or fashion.

Mr. Kleinedler of the American Heritage Dictionary says one of the biggest waves of new terminology in the last half-century came only recently.

KLEINEDLER: "One of the largest influxes of words came from the technological revolution of the late 90's, with the Internet. Not only the technology, the bits and bytes that went into the Internet, but the whole sociological phenomenon that came from that. The chat rooms, the messages, and the instant messaging all spawned a cyber culture that created dozens if not scores of new words."

So familiar are words like website, search engine, and Internet, that it is hard to believe they might one day disappear. But this is how language works. The only thing that is certain is that next year, lexicographers will be back at their desks, sifting through hundreds of new potential entries, and ridding dictionaries of obsolete ones.

For Voice of America, this is James Donahower in New York.