Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Our expanding vocabulary

The publishing industry, like every other industry, has its own vocabulary, which keeps expanding year by year. Leafing through William Brohaugh's English Through the Ages (1998), focusing mainly on words in the Literature/Writing category, I was surprised that some words are as recent as they are, while others have been in use much longer than I would have guessed.

It's no surprise that terms like desktop publishing and graphic novel weren't coined until the 1980s or that electronic publishing and self-published weren't used before the 1970s. Investigative journalism may have been done before Watergate, but not until the 1970s was that term actually used.

But a  coffee-table book wasn't called that until the 1960s, which surprises me. The terms pop-up book, speed-reading, legal pad and pulp magazine also were unheard until the 1960s, according to Brohaugh, even though the age of the pulp magazine was nearly over by the 1960s. I was surprised to learn that word processing dates back that far. Brohaugh confuses me when he says the term procedural, in reference to mystery novels, wasn't used until the 1970s, but he says police procedural was known in the 1960s.

Going back further we find the 1950s gave us centerfold (no surprise there), as well as both hardback and softbound. I am shocked that the terms fine print and copyedit are that recent, however.

The 1940s produced comic book, think piece (I would have guessed a later date), cover story and foreign correspondent. The Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent was released in 1940, so unless Hitchcock himself coined the phrase, surely it must be older than that. The phrase writer's block also dates from this period of history.

By 1940 people were saying talking book (no surprise if you have seen the movie Places in the Heart), field guide, library card and photojournalism. Only the last term seems a bit out of place for that decade.

Go back another decade to the 1920s and we find newsmagazine (a surprise), bookmobile (another surprise), press and whodunit. That decade also gave us dust jacket, fan magazine, ghostwrite and newscast. A couple of terms from that decade, fictioneer and magazinist, have already dropped out of use.

By 1920 people were already saying comic strip, subplot, rhyme scheme, newshound, byline, superhero and blurb.

By the end of the 19th century they were using such terms as four-letter word, mumbo jumbo and weasel word. This period also gave us journalese, Americanese, telegraphese and officialese, which shows how you can have fads in vocabulary just like in anything else..

The middle of the 19th century produced a number of words still in use today. These include science fiction (in use by 1855, though I would have expected a later date), folktale, booklet, clothbound, book review (by 1865), potboiler, funny paper and scoop.

Earlier in that century someone coined punctuate, hyphen, exclamation point and past tense, making you wonder what terms were used for these things before then. That period also gave us figure of speech and cuss.

Go back to the 18th century and you find lyricism, dialogue, magazine, autobiography, circular, literature, poetic license and bookstore. The 17th century produced character, memoir, newspaper, biography, font, journalist, alphabetize and plot.

I could keep going. Some of the earliest English words in this category include such basics as book (by 725), verse (by 900), read and write (both also by 900).

Vocabulary, like culture itself, is a product of many generations, each one adding something new to what is already there.

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