Nouvocabulary

by David Sugarman

Each year, I’m as interested as any other language nerd to hear the list of new words incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary. How many would I use? How many have I never heard of? How many stem from technologies or cultural phenomena that are a no-go zone as far as I’m concerned?

Among this year’s crop, “selfie”, the word of the year, is part of my vocabulary although not my habits; my own TV-watching stops just short of the “binge-watch”; and as for my relationship with “twerking”, dear reader, you will have to use your imagination…

English is a highly fluid and adaptable language. Neologisms come easily; for a long list of reasons, it is the international language in which technological breakthroughs and new fashions and trends are generally first described. Just a little stretching and twisting of linguistic materials, and a term is coined.

Spare a thought, though, for the French. When expanding their vocabulary is concerned, much of the time they have to play catch-up. Naturally enough, France’s young people are constantly creating their own impenetrable argot, as do young people speaking practically every language known to man. But other portions of the population have a harder time pushing their language forward. Defenders of the French language battle valiantly against the rising tide of Anglicisms and have scored a few notable victories over the years (such as in the early 1970s, when “logiciel” was coined as a translation of “software”).

There is a relatively little-known annual event held in Le Havre called Le Festival du Nouveau Mot (scheduled, apparently, to coincide with the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau). Since 2002, the Festival has elected its “word of the year”. The list of past winners is not particularly inspiring: the best of a poor bunch in my opinion are “ordinosaure” (a prehistoric computer) and “attachiant” (describing a very annoying person you can’t get rid of). Both terms are portmanteau words (ordinateur + dinosaure and attachant + chiant). Frankly, once you’ve got beyond a smile of recognition, you can hardly say that either of them will change your life.

This year’s “word of the year”, I can breathlessly report, is “plénior”. It’s a combination, it seems, of plénitude, meaning “richness”, with an echo of plaisir, or pleasure, and senior… that good old English adjective that the French misuse as a noun to refer to older people, probably originally a contraction of “senior citizen”. So a “plénior” is someone getting on a bit who lives life to the full. Rather underwhelming as neologisms go. I wonder what the runner-up was…

Meanwhile, as I only live 45 minutes from Le Havre, I will make a point of attending next year’s festival, where I intend to campaign for a word I have just invented, which you will find (subtly translated) as the title of this article: Nouvocabulaire. I am toying with spelling it Nouveaucabulaire: a subliminal nod to the Beaujolais Nouveau on offer can’t do its chances of winning the vote any harm!

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