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Staying Power
New Lexicography

Staying Power
  • Gulliver's Travels (by )
  • Selections from Rabelias' Gargantua (by )
  • The Castle of Otranto (by )
  • Don Quixote (by )
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Every year, lexicographers must decide which popular words and phrases will be added to dictionaries. Tuned into books, politics, business, technology, the arts, and media, these word masters observe which words and phrases are used most frequently, exactly how they’re used, and what they mean.

Although most people can easily determine which words are relatively new such as google (added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006), and "selfie" and "frenemy", which were new additions around 2014, it’s more of a challenge to figure out what the new additions were in years past.

For example, which words were added to dictionaries in 1980, 1970, and 1960? The answer: "foodie", "groovy", and "scam", respectively.

Merriam-Webster defines a yahoo as “an uncouth or rowdy person.” The word emerged from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels. An imaginary humanoid race, the Yahoos were brutish and uncouth. The book is also behind the coining of the term "lilliputian" also derived from Gulliver’s Travels. Meaning trivial or small, it refers to Lilliput—the name of a fictional island.  
The word "serendipity", which is defined as “an assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” is traced back to English writer Horace Walpole who is renowned for writing The Castle of Otranto. He is also widely known for writing letters to British diplomat Sir Horace Mann. In a letter to Mann, Walpole explained that he created the word serendipity based upon the fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (Ceylon). Some of the story’s characters make fortunate discoveries by accident.

The 1960 film La Dolce Vita (the sweet life), which was written and directed by Federico Fellini, follows the story of fictional character Marcello Rubini—a rather charming journalist who writes for gossip magazines. During Rubini’s travel through Rome, he counters an an intrusive photojournalist, an irritating character named Paparazzo who served as inspiration for the word "paparazzi." In his book Word and Phrase, Robert Hendrickson stated that Fellini found inspiration for the character’s name from a word that hailed from a specific Italian dialect. That word described an annoying noise—the sound of a buzzing insect.

Other words that hail from books include gargantuan from the name of a king in the book Gargantua by Francois Rabelais, and quixotic from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

By Regina Molaro
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