Humans never outgrow a fascination with new playthings, but after a certain age it is unseemly and unrealistic to expect a steady stream of surprise gifts from doting parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. One consolation for this loss is new words: clever coinages come along all the time to supply our craving for novelty. A word, term, or phrase that was unknown yesterday can be on everyone’s lips in a matter of hours or days because it fulfills a human need: a new thing to have fun with.
The soberer side of this phenomenon is the province of lexicographers and dictionary publishers, who must decide whether a newly-minted word is of sufficient importance and longevity to be included in a dictionary. Here’s the dilemma: it’s a commercial dead-end for a dictionary to seem out-of-date and old-fashioned, but a dictionary that allows every fashionable word to climb onto its bandwagon will quickly lose the respect of its peers.
Language watchers may have noted a spate – perhaps it was only a spatter – of news stories six weeks ago, grandly proclaiming “Tebowing now an official dictionary word” or “Tebowing makes it into the dictionary.” It’s the sort of headline that makes lexicographers roll their eyes heavenward. The flutter of excitement, upon analysis, turned out to be in essence a promotion from a website, The Global Language Monitor, which has been involved previously in various schemes to call attention to itself by baiting journalists on a short deadline with faux news. In fact, Tebowing has not been added to any respectable dictionary, and it’s too early to tell now whether it will be.
What (in case you’ve been living under a rock) is Tebowing? It’s a word based on the surname of Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos football team. He’s an evangelical Christian and he manifests his faith, quite unconventionally, by genuflecting. Yes: genuflecting. English already has a word for what he does, but the novelty of its being done by a football player in uniform, combined with the easy convertibility of his name to a gerund and the fun of saying “Tebowing” certainly encouraged the coinage. A coinage, however, is a far cry from an entry as a headword, and it seems unlikely that Tebowing will appear in any dictionary soon. The word got a lot of airtime when the Broncos pulled off a number of heart-stopping, eleventh-hour victories, but they lost their bid to participate in their division’s championship playoffs. No amount of genuflection seems to have been able to change the fact that their opponents played better football.
A trip down short-term memory lane shows that fad words like Tebowing come along all the time – and they go with equal frequency. Do you remember cyberchondria? It gets about three hits today if you try it in Google News, but for a few weeks back in the day (5 years ago or so) it was nearly as frequent as Tebowing was in December. Snowmageddon had a heyday in 2010 when the East Coast of the US was blanketed in several feet of snow, but it left lexicographers cold and the word does not yet appear in any standard dictionary. Matrimania – hyping of all things related to marriage – seems to have been coined around the turn of this century and it enjoyed a few days in the limelight, but has hardly been seen since. People enjoy words like these when they come along, and today unconventional reference websites like Urbandictionary and Wikipedia provide a place to record them, but speakers are fickle. We soon abandon these novel playthings because we know that others will be coming along soon.Email this Post