New Words

December 2015

New Words is a visualisation that took every single word added to the English language in the last four years (around 2,000 words) and grouped them by meaning.

One of the key concepts in modern linguistics is that language not only shapes how we communicate but also how we think and act; how we construct language reveals much about how we construct our world. For New Words, I scraped the Oxford English Dictionary to find the words which had been recently added. There are often end of year polls that tell you what the word of the year is (2015 apparently being the year of the “selfie”). This while interesting, is limited. What is more revealing is to group these words into themes and classes to see thematically whether these words build up to reveal changes in thought. I created my own classification system (the current one being used by the OED would not be granular enough to reveal any trends) based on the new meanings of all of these words that I have found.

 Marc Alexander’s work at Glasgow shows that it is possible to map historical movements in thought through language, that it is possible to see the enlightenment (more words to do with science, newspapers and movement of money) and the industrial revolution (more to do with technology and wealth). This means that my piece is incredibly subjective. It is my view of these words, it is not dispassionate. I wanted to see if a similar ideological shift was happening now by looking at the words that we are now using that we were not using before and the things that we are talking about now that we were not talking about previously; in effect, to find out what kind of world was being made with this ‘new’ language that we are using now. 

There is a lot of talk in the press and by technologists about how we do not have an adequate language to talk about technology, and in particular the internet. This is something that is stated absolutely but never backed up. This project allowed me to see if the statement was true – do we have a language to talk about technology and is that language moving quickly enough to keep up with all of the developments that are happening? Of the most recently added words, only around 3% are related to technology and digital, and when you investigate this these are wildly inconsistent, as can be seen illustrated. Why do we have so many words to talk about satellite technology? Are we really talking that much about BitTorrent and have so few words to talk about the internet? However - recording language is notoriously difficult and has traditionally has had a lag (e.g. “gamergate" which was added as a new word in 2014 in relation to how ants reproduce, now has a totally different meaning) so that many of the words that are used today to describe technology might not have “officially” been recognised as of yet. 

What is clear is that the rate of change – the scientific discovery, the advances in medicine, technology - is reflected in the new words that have been added.  It is possible to see the increase in knowledge in physics and the increasing globalisation of food and activities, which are surely good things.  But also visible is the bad – racism and new forms of warfare, for example. When you pull out a grouping of words, such as politics (illustrated), it is almost like seeing a microcosm of what is going on with society.