From Bard Words to BuzzWords – parallels in word formation

Posted by on June 13, 2016

William ShakespeareFor many years now, Macmillan Dictionary’s popular BuzzWord posts have been examining some of the latest additions to the English lexicon, and with a back catalogue of over 500 words and expressions, they’ve looked at the full range of weird and wonderful linguistic innovations, from amazeballs to ambush marketing, zonkey to zorbing. Though outwardly these BuzzWords look like bright, shiny new creations, the processes which brought them about aren’t new at all, but in fact correspond to regular patterns of word formation that have been observable in English over centuries.

Roll back 500 years, and of course Shakespeare was a big cheese when it came to the propagation of trendy new vocabulary. And if we take a more detailed look at some of his enduring contributions to the English language, it’s fascinating to see the parallels between the development of ‘Bard words’ and some of today’s BuzzWords.

To take an example, consider the word zany, whose first recorded use was in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, where character Biron talks of a trick played by ‘…some please-man, some slight zany’. If you’re paying attention you’ll notice straight away that in the Bard’s world, zany isn’t functioning as the adjective we’re now familiar with, but in fact as a noun. In this era, a zany was a comic performer, a kind of clown who awkwardly mimics the actions of his boss. Over time however the word became more generally associated with the idea of playing the fool to make people laugh, eventually resulting in the adjective usage we know today. This process, in which a word migrates from one part of speech to another, is technically known as ‘conversion’, and there are many other examples where Shakespeare’s works are significant, like for instance noun use of scuffle, which prior to Antony and Cleopatra had only been seen as a verb. BuzzWord posts have discussed a number of modern examples of the same process. Among them are the word green, which in its environmental sense has latterly converted from adjective to verb (meaning ‘make something more environmentally-friendly’), and notable in this Olympic year, the noun medal, now also used as a verb to mean simply ‘win a medal’. Before leaving zany it’s also worth noting that, just as today we’ve borrowed the likes of sudoku and tsunami from Japanese, the Bard grabbed zany from the Italian form za(n)ni, proving that loanwords have been popular for centuries too.

Another adjective famously introduced by Shakespeare is the rather deliciously sounding lacklustre (originally spelt lackluster), which was first used in As You Like It. Formed from a combination of verb lack and noun luster (= ‘radiance’), the Bard seemed to have a penchant for this particular pattern of affixation, also using, among others, lack-love and lack-brain. Though I’m sure many of us would happily adopt lack-brain into our repertoire of insulting language, these latter examples faded. What is still very much alive and well, however, is the creative use of prefixes, exemplified today by words like uber-cool, and supersize. And the parallels exist with more conventional prefixes too,  such as the Bard’s use of re- in ­e.g. relume (Othello, a verb meaning ‘light again’), mirrored for example in today’s regift.

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