Only a poltroon despises pedantry

In this column David Mitchell feels that introducing new words is all very well, but he prefers the traditional approach to language. Read the whole column here.

Susie Dent, dictionary cornerstone of Countdown‘s revamped cathedral, has come up with her annual list of the new words that have entered common usage. Compiled for The Oxford English Dictionary, it provides an excellent opportunity to reinforce the conclusions we’ve already come to about the year that’s just finished.

2009, 12 months of being broke and online, has thrown up exactly the kind of new term you’d expect: staycation, tweetup, bossnapping and unfriend are all set to lose their red wavy underlining in the Microsoft Words (or should that be Microsofts Word?) of Christmas Yet To Come. I’m only surprised that “duck island” hasn’t entered the language as a new expression for a hysterical-consensus-inducing irrelevance. Maybe people are still using “Sachsgate”.

I get uncomfortable around these heartwarming celebrations of words. It smacks of the view that some words, almost in isolation from their meaning, are fun and interesting because they roll round the tongue or have lots of syllables. “Ooh, ‘perforation’, that’s a good word, isn’t it?” “I do love the word ‘drizzle’ – it really makes you think of drizzle!” Does it? That may be because you speak English.

It reminds me of teachers at school who, undoubtedly with the best motives, would criticise the use of words such as “nice” and “good” because they were boring. “Boring, are they? That’s rich, considering how tedious this whole schooling experience is proving,” I used to think as I glumly flicked through my mini-thesaurus. They’re not boring words, any more than potatoes and bread are boring foods. If you start describing everything as “rambunctious” or “celestial”, you end up with sentences like meals in expensive ethnic restaurants – all flavoursome sharing plates and no bloody chips. Slagging people off for saying “nice” and “good” is what leads to their resorting to “awesome”.

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