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Keep Your English Up To Date / Vocabulary
The English language is permanently evolving and developing. New words and expressions are coined and existing words change their meaning as society, culture and technology progress.
Professor David Crystal is one of the world’s foremost experts on language. He has selected some words and expressions that have recently made it into the language, if not necessarily into dictionaries.
D-LIST. A few years ago, a US entertainment journalist called James Ulmer worked out a scale to assess how valuable movie stars were. He called it the Ulmer Scale and it became very popular, a lot of people use it now. And the top movie stars, you know, people like Tom Hanks, are A-list - they are the tops, they are the stars, they are the real ones. Movie stars that are not quite so valuable are B-list. And then ones that are still less valuable are C-list. I mean, obviously, everybody wants to be on the A-list but, inevitably, you get A, B and C. But that’s where the list stops. There is no ‘D-list’. And, of course, as soon as people realised that, they invented precisely such a word! ‘A D-list’, in other words, is a celebrity who is so obscure that he or she doesn’t even get on to the scale. In other words, ‘a D-list’ is a bottom-of-the-heap kind of situation.
Well, of course, it immediately attracted some kudos because some people who were really quite well known, didn’t get on to the list for whatever reason and made the most of this. There was a 2005 TV show called - by Kathy Griffin - called ‘My Life on the D-list’ which was very popular - it was a satirical take on the whole business of Hollywood and listings and things like that.
And now, in a kind of inverted-snobbery sort of way, there are all kinds of D-list things. There are D-list celebrity T-shirts, D-list cartoons, D-list blogs.
ALKOPOPS. One of the big questions always with a language is: “how do new words come into being?” Well, you can borrow them from other languages of course; a lot of English words are like that. But one of the lesser-known ways of making new words is to form a blend – and a blend is when you run two words together to make a third word. And people have done it since the beginning of English actually. To take a recent example: alcopops – carbonated fruit flavoured drinks containing alcohol. It’s a very interesting word indeed! Alco is obviously the first part of the word, shortened version of “alcohol”. And pops is the second part of the word. Pop you might not know so much about. It has quite a long-standing usage. It’s basically the word for lemonade once upon a time. Pop bottles – because of the sound that’s made when a cork is drawn out of an effervescing drink – that sort of sound! – and pops suddenly became a very quick sound symbolic way of expressing that kind of notion; so the two words have come together: alcohol and pop …and becomes alco-pops.
TEXT. ‘Text’ is one of these new words that have come into English as a result of the internet revolution and especially, this time, the cell phone revolution. Cell phones didn’t exist well, 5, 10 years ago, they weren’t around and as soon as they came along, people started using them to send messages to each other. So, first as a noun, you had the noun ‘text’ and now you have the verb ‘to text’, which is to send a written message using a mobile phone or a cell phone if you use that expression instead.
It isn’t new actually. Although the verb ‘to text’ is a modern feature of today’s English, you can actually trace it back to the 16th century when ‘to text’, in those days, was to write something in very large letters, in capital letters, in ‘text hand’. And, if you look it up in a big dictionary these days, you’ll often be told “this verbal use is now rather rare”. Well it was rare until about 4 or 5 years ago. Since then of course, everybody’s been using it, and it’s produced a whole new family of words.
You can now ‘text’ somebody of course, but you can be engaged in the noun ‘texting’. And then you’ve got ‘text messaging’ which is a fuller form of the idea of texting somebody. And the people who send messages to each other are called ‘texters’, and the whole language of abbreviated communication that you can use - introducing abbreviated forms into your text message, in order to make it as succinct and as quick to send as possible. Well, what’s the name for that? There isn’t an agreed name at the moment - but I call it ‘text speak’.
LATERS. That’s the word ‘later’ with an ‘s’ at the end. It’s a shortened form of ‘see you later’, really. Ciao. TTFN - ta ta for now!
It’s unusual though, to add an ‘s’ to a word like that, isn’t it? It’s not the first time it’s happened, but it usually happens with reference to names of people or names of relatives - pet names. You know, instead of saying ‘mum’, you might say ‘mums’ or ‘mummsie’. Instead of saying ‘pop’, you might say ‘pops’, ‘gramps’ for ‘grandpa’. And proper names too, I mean, Will becomes Wills - a member of the royal family is sometimes referred to as Wills, for instance, or Babs for Barbara. So there are some uses where you add an ‘s’ to make something nice and friendly, but it’s unusual to see it before a kind of general phrase like ‘see you later’ or ‘later’, and thus - laters.
Notice by the way, that that phrase ‘see you later’ has changed its meaning in English in recent times. If somebody says ‘see you later’, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to see you later today. In my day, that’s certainly what it would have meant - ‘see you later’ means ‘I’ll see you before the day is out’. But somebody left on an aeroplane the other day and I heard them say to the people they’d left behind, ‘see you later!’ But the person would certainly not be seeing them later, not for months, perhaps.
So if you say ‘laters’, it’s a kind of modern colloquialism in a way. It has a cool, slang sort of sense around it. If you say ‘laters’ instead of ‘goodbye’, then you probably wouldn’t say ‘hello’ - you’d probably say ‘hey’ or ‘hi’!
PANTS.Of course, you all know the normal meanings of ‘pants’ - though perhaps you’ve sometimes found yourselves in that situation of trying to remember which meaning of pants is the norm in the UK and the US (remember, in the US trousers are called ‘pants’) - but how many of you know it as an adjective, an interjection, or even a verb? Ah yes, ‘pants’ is so much more than an item of clothing.
Consider a conversation I heard recently in London between two young people in their early-twenties: one took out his mobile phone to make a call, and his friend said ‘Your mob is pants, why don’t you get a new one?’. When pants is used as an adjective to mean ‘rubbish’ or ‘poor quality’, it can be modified, so we have ‘more pants’ and ‘the most pants’!
Or how about this: ‘Pants! I’ve got a test at school tomorrow and I haven’t done any work’. Here we’re expressing disappointment, worry - a feeling of dejection.
And did you know you can be ‘pantsed’? Imagine yourself at the swimming pool, you’ve had a nice swim and a shower and are getting dressed when one of your friends rushes over and pulls your underwear down, running away laughing. You’ve been pantsed!
Just when you thought you only had to remember the difference between pants as underwear and pants as trousers, you find a whole new world of meaning. Oh pants!
MAKE MY DAY. Of all the mediums that influence language, I think film is the one that has the most effect. Not so much from the point of view of pronunciation and grammar. I don’t think we pick up very many sounds and grammatical instructions from the films we see – but the catchphrases. Right from the earliest days of film, catchphrases have been extracted from the film medium and “make my day” I think is one of the most famous.
Well, you may remember it, it’s Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry in the film Sudden Impact. He invites an armed thug to take him on and Clint Eastwood is holding a very big gun – so he’s just waiting for the thug to do something horrible, and he says “go ahead, make my day!”.
Well it just caught on, it spread in meaning – people started using it within a sort of ironic circumstance. To say “make my day” means “do something that’ll really please me”. It implies a really big deal or something like that. In fact Clint Eastwood himself, when he was being elected mayor of Carmel, went round the whole of his little town, his little city, with a T-shirt on - “elect me mayor – make my day!”