language change and slang linguistics and lexicography Live English

Happy 10th birthday, BuzzWord!

In 2003, my son was 8 years old, tablets were still the things the doctor prescribed to make you better, and no-one had much of a clue about tweets, smartphones and apps. Yes, a lot can happen in 10 years – my son is now on the cusp of ‘adulthood’, I own a tablet, tweeting isn’t reserved for birds, and, if I had a smartphone, dictionaries that once weighed several kilos could sit comfortably in my pocket as apps. A whole decade of social, political and technological change has elapsed, and with it a whole decade of writing BuzzWords

Back in 2003, Macmillan invited me to contribute to a new endeavour. In order to keep abreast of new developments in language, and mindful of the unprecedented pace at which new technologies were influencing the lexicon, they’d come up with the idea of a column which would discuss a new word or expression every week. It sounded interesting, but a challenging prospect – were there really enough new words out there? And how would we find them? I need never have worried. As we embarked upon this project, the Internet was rapidly making the transition from exciting innovation to everyday tool, accessible to all. And along with it came a new and exciting forum for observing, discussing, and sharing language.

And so it transpires that, over ten years, we’ve listened, watched, read and recorded. In doing so, we’ve managed to keep our finger on the pulse of language change, and made observations at a pace which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Along the way, we’ve demonstrated that, however weird and wonderful new coinages may seem, they employ principles of word formation that have existed in English for centuries. So, just as in previous eras of language change, we’ve seen words recycled (follow, occupy), modified through affixation (regift, debaptism), abbreviated (BOGOF, WAG) , borrowed from other languages (vuvuzela, sudoku) and combined in part or whole. Regarding the latter, blending often whips up media attention, producing some particularly novel creations (greenwash, babymoon), but it’s the simple use of compounding that often leads to coinages which seem more likely to stay the course (citizen journalism, drug driving).

So after ten years, we now have the luxury of looking back, and being able to see which words and expressions have made the leap from lexical curiosity to real, bona fide item of English in use. Technology has of course provided the majority of the ‘winners’– where would we be today without WiFi or the opportunity to google? Social media, too, have had a dramatic impact on the linguistic landscape, with expressions like OMG even crossing the boundary into speech. But there are many other areas of life which have thrown up words that seem likely to stick around, from the toxic debt of finance or the staycations of cash-strapped families, through to the omnishambles of an ineffectual government or the carbon-neutral aspirations of environmentalists. For as long as they stay relevant to society, such words will occupy an enduring place in the lexicon, just as those we no longer have use for will make way for the next wave of lexical innovation in the ten years ahead.

So it’s happy 10th birthday, BuzzWord, and a chance to reflect on what we’ve achieved. We now have an archive of 444 ‘new’ words, providing an interesting lexical snapshot of the issues and preoccupations which were key players in the early years of a new millennium. Whether or not we’re still here in 2023 (gulp!) one thing is for certain – society will still continue to develop in ways that, today, we can’t even imagine – and so it is that we’ll need yet more new words to describe our changing world.


To celebrate the 10th anniversary of BuzzWord, Macmillan Dictionary has published a mini book with our 50 favourite BuzzWords. You can flick through Our Favourite BuzzWords below.

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Kerry Maxwell


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