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The Secrets of Their Success

by Allan Metcalf

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2002
ISBN: 0-618-13006-3
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Language authority Metcalf (The World in So Many Words, 1999, etc.) entices readers into the quirky, sometimes mysterious process by which brand-new words and phrases emerge to define the times in which we live.

Technology’s march crushes as many words as it anoints, observes Metcalf (English/MacMurray Coll.). “Chad,” for instance, even though it has recently spawned “hanging” and “pregnant” variants, will not outlive the punch card. The author’s main premise is that he has developed a formula that, applied to existing neologisms, will let us make an educated guess as to whether they will stick around or not. The FUDGE scale (Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users, Generation of other forms, Endurance) is mildly persuasive, but Metcalf’s text is not mission-critical stuff; it’s just plain fun. For example, the origin of the now universally accepted “okay” is traced to a wacky but thankfully short-lived fad among 19th-century writers and editors to use garbled acronyms as a kind of satiric commentary: hence, “all correct” becomes O.K. in the same vein that N.S.M.G. stands for “‘nuff said ’mong gentlemen.” Even more amusing are fraudulent scholarly attempts to pass “okay” off as derivative of foreignisms ranging from French to Finnish and even Scots dialect (“Och aye,” or, “oh, yes”). More serious is the way event-driven phrases latch on as historical shorthand: “9/11,” for instance, recasts “Ground Zero,” a nearly forgotten technical reference to the point of a nuclear detonation, into a site of unspeakable horror. Also notable is the growing impact of computer analysis on word origins. Shakespeare, for example, is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with inventing more than 1,000 English words since legitimized by common usage; recent scanning of earlier texts reveals, however, that the Bard may often have taken preexisting but little-used words and put them solidly on the map within the memorable contexts of his works.

Farewell soccer moms, hello women of cover.