However this can be difficult, even with subtitles. English vocabulary evolves and expands at an incredible rate – new words (known as ‘neologisms’) are created all the time, as our lives change due to new technology and lifestyle choices. Indeed, new technology is responsible for many new English words: for example, the verb ‘to unfriend’, which means to remove a friend from one’s social network, e.g. Facebook or Myspace. The noun ‘paywall’ is similarly taken from the field of technology. According to time.com, it is “a system that prevents Internet users from accessing certain web content without a paid subscription”. Many national newspapers have paywalls in place. (Twenty years ago, no-one would have known what a ‘paywall’ was.)
A ‘catfish’ has long been known as a fish that resembles a cat due to its ‘whiskers’ – yet now, the noun ‘catfish’ also means “a person who sets up a fake personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes” (time.com). If you had called someone a “catfish” in 1980, they would have looked at you very strangely!
Other areas of modern life also produce a lot of new vocabulary. Take sports, for example: Barcelona FC’s success in recent years, with the club’s distinctive style of quick possession football, has led to the introduction of the word ‘tiki-taka’ to English sporting parlance. Similarly, Jose Mourinho’s influence (and idiosyncratic manner of speaking) has seen the phrase “parking the bus” adopted by British football fans to refer to a football team that prioritises defence over any attempt to attack (e.g. ‘Manchester United parked the bus against Manchester City last night’).
Some English words combine to form new words. These are called ‘portmanteau words’ after the French ‘porter’ (‘carry’) and ‘manteaux’ (‘mantle’). A few examples are ‘chillax’ (a blend of ‘chill’ and ‘relax’); ‘emoticon’ (‘emotion’ and ‘icon’), the little smiling/sad faces we use in texts and emails; ‘frenemy’ (‘friend’ and ‘enemy’), an enemy who pretends to be your friend; ‘brunch’ (‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’), a meal often taken by busy business people, which occurs halfway between the two more traditional meal times; and many more.
Other words change or add new meanings to their original ones. The most obvious example is the word ‘gay’, which used to mean “light-hearted and joyous” but has become synonymous with homosexuality since the 1930s. Another (less obvious) example is the word ‘meat’, which nowadays refers to the edible flesh of an animal but was once used to refer “to food in general – solid food of a variety of kinds… as opposed to drink”.
We need to be careful how we use words as we might mistakenly cause offence. In Spain, there is a popular brand of bread called Bimbo. In English, a ‘bimbo’ is “an attractive but unintelligent young woman” (Oxford English Dictionary). (To be politically correct, a male alternative – ‘himbo’ – has also been created.) Many Spanish speakers may be unaware of this meaning; on the other hand, the average English speaker is most likely unaware that ‘bimbo’ itself comes from the Italian ‘bambino’ – ‘little child’ – nothing to do with intellectually challenged females at all!
The word ‘cute’ has changed over time, too. In the 1730s it was “a shortened form of acute meaning ‘keenly perceptive or shrewd’” (mirror.co.uk). By the 1830s it was part of American slang, meaning “pretty… charming”. This meaning is still in use today – quite different from its original definition.
Words are constantly changing and we need to move with the times. Can you work out which definitions fit which new words in our test?
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