This Ain't Your Grandma's English

Scott Gardner

Words change. We use new words to describe old things, and we put new meanings on old words. Take “beddum and bolstrum” for example. For some of you that phrase might conjure up warm memories of spending the night at grandmother’s house after a day of frolicking with cousins in the meadow, and at bedtime hearing her call from the top of the staircase, “Beddum and bolstrum, kiddies!” . . . or it might not. In fact, beddum ond bolstrum (bedding materials) is made up of old Anglo-Saxon words that haven’t been used much since the late 1000s. Whatever grandma was shouting down the stairs, you must have heard it wrong.

The Safekeepers of English—mainly the Oxford English Dictionary and others like it—are aware that languages can’t exist without people to speak them. But they also know that people are apt to do to language what they typically do with any amazing gift they don’t fully understand: they abuse, neglect, and mangle it beyond recognition. The scriveners at OED have tried to keep up with English speakers’ violence upon their language by making careful dictionary additions as the need arises. Rather than publish a new 20-plus-volume edition every few years, they make regular posts on the internet showing what sorts of atrocities have recently crept into the language. Here are a few examples from the “new words list October 2019” (<>), along with my unsolicited critique.

amber pudding, n.: A dish consisting of a mixture of ambergris, almonds, breadcrumbs, etc., enclosed in a pig’s intestine and boiled. Now historical and rare.

Right off the bat we have a major problem with the OED’s “new word” objective. Why would they add amber pudding to the dictionary if they’re admitting it’s already “historical and rare”? (And another thing: why did they leave cloves out of the recipe?)

anchoveta, n.: A small anchovy, Engraulis ringens, found off the coasts of Peru and Chile and valuable as a source of fish meal and oil.

Apparently anchovies have relatives even smaller than they are. Anchoveta sounds like the sub-compact car your parents drove when you were in junior high school, and you prayed they’d buy something cooler by the time you were old enough to drive.

favorite, v.: To store a link (to a web page) in a web browser so as to enable quick access in future; to bookmark.

Wrong. Just because you bookmark a link doesn’t mean you favorite it. Favoriting is the same as liking, as in “Like me on Facebook!” Both these words used to describe states of approval, mental “happy places” where you could reside (e.g., “Toto is my favorite brand of bathroom fixtures. I won’t sit on anything else!”). But now they have come to describe active, completable tasks, something you do and then it’s done (“At first I liked his Twitter rant about Babymetal haters, but then I decided ‘too much drama’ so I unliked it.”). Interestingly, I wrote to Facebook once, asking them what they thought of adding an “indifferent” icon to their feedback choices. Six months later I got a reply from them. All it said was (·_·).

chillax, v.: To calm down and relax; to take it easy, to chill.

I’d hoped that chillax would go the “historical and rare” route, but sadly now that it’s going to be ensconced in the OED it will probably never be forgotten. Two hundred years from now high school kids doing etymology homework for their sadistic English teachers will be scrolling through their OED apps (linked to virtual study-room headgear via Bluetooth transmitters embedded—where else?—in their teeth), looking for examples of archaic English words. And one of them will come across chillax and think, “This word’s quaint and laughable enough to resurrect as a joke with my friends.” And just like that, chillax will be re-released upon the world like an evil curse from a mummy’s tomb. Hide under your bolstrums, people!