Going mainstream

Posted by on September 24, 2013

© Photodisc / Getty Images / Ryan McVayIn 1964, scientists predicted the existence of an elementary particle which could explain why some particles have mass. It later became known as the Higgs boson, and in March 2013 researchers working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN) announced that they had found evidence which (probably) confirmed its existence. But despite being in the language since the early 1970s, the term Higgs boson did not find its way into general dictionaries until much later. (It was missing from the first edition of the Macmillan Dictionary, for example, and from the much larger Encarta World English Dictionary, published in 1999.) This is a common scenario. Terms belonging to specialized ‘sublanguages’ don’t generally become part of mainstream vocabulary – unless something happens to propel them into the limelight. So it was with the Higgs boson. When CERN’s ‘Large Hadron Collider’ (LHC) began operating in 2008, there was a lot of media speculation about what the LHC might reveal, and one of the researchers’ key objectives was to ‘find’ the Higgs boson. Suddenly the word was part of the public discourse, and at this point it began to be included in general dictionaries.

This is a dramatic example, but at a more mundane level we can see how words like disk drive (first used in 1963), RAM (1957), and megabyte (1965) existed quietly for years in their own specialized area until computing, once the preserve of mathematicians in white coats, became part of everyday life. And as we all grew familiar with computers and their jargon, we also became experts in printing, casually bandying around words which had once been exclusive to professionals in the printing trade – like landscape, portrait, and font.

All of which reminds us that the ‘new’ words in dictionaries aren’t necessarily really new: they may have simply crossed over from being technical terms to become part of our mainstream vocabulary. A good example from our recent update is the term Libor (the ‘London Interbank Offered Rate’). Libor was a well-established but arcane piece of terminology known only to bankers, until a major scandal erupted in 2012, when several well-known banks were fined for unlawfully manipulating the rate. Twenty years ago, most ordinary people knew nothing about quantitative easing, short-selling, or credit default swaps. Most of us, I suspect, still struggle to understand how these things work, but the global financial crisis which began in 2008 has raised public awareness of what goes on in the banking sector, so terms like these no longer seem so exotic.

Meanwhile, we have a ‘new’ word from the shadowy world of political spin doctors – the people who work behind the scenes to ensure that their politician bosses get the best possible treatment in the media (and that their political enemies suffer maximum damage). Between the civil servants, who run government departments, and the elected politicians who decide policy, there is a third group, whose status is unclear but whose powers can be great: the ‘special advisors’. In political circles, they are apparently known as spads, but this only became public knowledge quite recently (again, in the wake of various scandals).

So, from particle physics and IT, to financial engineering and political intrigue, specialized terms known only to insiders have become sufficiently high-profile to deserve a place in a general dictionary.

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