Deeper into Jeopardy! XXVIII: Linguistics – $1600

Jeopardy! category: LINGUISTICS (9-10-2014)

$1600 clue: “Ecotourism” is an example of this type of -ism recently created & added to the popular lexicon

Correct response

The gist: Some recent examples from the folks at Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “spoonula” (a spoon/spatula hybrid), “normcore” (fashion trend focused on bland clothing), “doxxing” (publishing personal information about an individual online). These and countless other neologisms (from the Greek “neo-,” new, and “logos,” word) are added to dictionaries, and particularly their online versions, on a very regular basis. They’re also very often the fuel that feeds the ebb and flow of linguistic outrage as words that some deem “not real” seem to be given a veneer of respectability by their inclusion in an official dictionary. Of course, this is based on a flawed understanding of both what makes a word a “real” one, and what dictionaries, and the folks who compile them, actually do.

Take, for example, the August 2013 addition of the then-ubiquitous verb “twerk” to the cyberspace arm of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary Online. Predictably, self-anointed language police were up in arms over a word of such low birth being included in the illustrious Oxford. What such people failed to realize is that:

  1. Words become “real” when they become useful to some arbitrarily large number of a language’s users. When enough of a language’s speakers agree that it carries a certain definition and begin to use it with one another, it enters the lexicon of that language, or at least the lexicon of some group of that language’s speakers.
  2. Dictionaries are reference works, not arbiters of language. The mission of dictionary writers is to provide a list of words with accepted definitions of them, and in some cases provide auxiliary information such as etymologies and pronunciation guides for interested parties. Dictionaries are descriptive works – whether or not a word is in the dictionary says nothing about its status as a “real” word. Not to mention, the Oxford Dictionary Online “focuses on current language and practical usage,” and so is much quicker to include words like twerk than the print edition.

But, none of that is likely to matter to the people who see themselves as protectors of the English language, whatever they themselves consider that to mean. The truth is, they have no greater right to decide what’s a “real” word than anyone else – languages are democratic processes, accepting and denying input from any and all sources, and often even being more open to youth and other subcultures than to more “respectable” society. Words come and words go, and I for one think neologisms are lots of fun, no matter who’s doing it at what televised award show.

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According to Lucky Magazine, this is normcore. Doesn’t look very normal to me, but what do I know. Or care.

The clue: An example and a definition, plus the end of the word in quotes. Doesn’t seem very hard to me, but then I know about them. Certainly this is a know-it-or-you-don’t clue, which the writers could have avoided by giving the meanings of the Greek roots, as they often do with words from Greek and Latin, but opted not to here.

In Jeopardy!: You know, I could have sworn there’s been at least one category called “NEOLOGISMS,” but if there was it’s at least not in the J!Archive because the word appears in just six regular and one FJ! clue (where it was, in fact, the category). One clue besides this one asks for the term itself, while another gives the term “neologism” and wants “new word.” The others except one are all examples of neologisms: one actually looks for “ecotourism” as the response, one is “wannabe,” and the FJ! clue relates “cyberspace” to its coinage in William Gibson’s sci-fi novel Neuromancer. Finally, one clue is a play on Huxley’s Brave New World, where the ‘L’ is dropped to make the new title Brave New Word. Surprisingly unpopular for a trivia show, but there you go – it’s split by about half either asking what a neologism is and asking for some specific one.

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