F) Colloquial coinages (words and meanings)

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F) Colloquial coinages (words and meanings)

Colloquial coinages (nonce-words), unlike those of a literary-bookish character, are spontaneous and elusive. This proceeds from the very nature of the colloquial words as such. Not all of the colloquial nonce-words are fixed in dictionaries or even in writing and therefore most of them disappear from the language leaving no trace in it whatsoever.

Unlike literary-bookish coinages, nonce-words of a colloquial na­ture are not usually built by means of affixes but are based on certain semantic changes in words that are almost imperceptible to the linguistic observer until the word finds its way into print.

It is only a careful stylistic analysis of the utterance as a whole that will reveal a new shade of meaning inserted into the semantic struc­ture of a given word or word-combination.

Writers often show that they are conscious of the specific character of the nonce-word they use by various means. The „following-are illus­trations of the deliberate use of a new word that either was already es­tablished in the language or was in process of being established as such:

"...besides, there is a tact——

(That modern phrase appears to me sad stuff.

But it will serve to keep my verse compact).

(Byron, "Don^Juan")

According to the Oxford Dictionary the meaning of the word tact as used in these lines appeared in the English language in 1804. Byron, who keenly felt any innovation introduced into the literary language of his time, accepts it unwillingly,

A similar case in which a writer makes use of a newly invented collo­quial expression, evidently strongly appreciating its meaning, may be noticed in "In Chancery", where Galsworthy uses to be the limit in the sense of 'to be unbearable' and comments on it,

"Watching for a moment of weakness she wrenched it free; then placing the dining-table between them, said between her teeth: You are the limit, Monty." (Undoubtedly the inception of this phrase—so is English formed under the stress of circums­tance.)

New expressions accepted by men-of-letters and commented on in one way or another are not literary coinages but colloquial ones. New literary coinages will always bear the brand of individual crea­tion and will therefore have more or less precise semantic boundaries. The meaning of literary coinages can easily be grasped by the reader because of the use of the productive means of word-building, and also from the context, of course.

This is not the case with colloquial nonce-words. The meaning of these new creations creeps into well-known words imperceptibly. One hardly notices the process leading to the appearance of a new meaning. Therefore colloquial nonce-formations are actually not new words but new meanings of existing words. True, there are some words that are built with the help of affixes, but these are few and they are generally built with the most common suffixes or prefixes of the English language which have no shade of bookishness, as -er, -al, un- and the like.

New coinage in colloquial English awakens as emphatic a protest on the part of literary-conscious people as do nonce-words in literary English. Here is an interesting quotation from an article in'The New York Times Magazine:

"Presently used to mean 'at the present moment' but became so completely coloured with idea of 'in the near future7 that when its older meaning came back into general use after World War II, through re-introduction into civilian speech of the conserva­tive military meaning, many people were outraged and insisted that the old meaning was being corrupted—whereas, in fact, the 'corrtfptioji' was^ being, purged. Human nature being what it is, and promptness ever behind promise, the chances are strong that the renewed meaning will fade.

"Peculiar originally meant 'belonging exclusively to'. We still keep the older meaning in such statement as 'a custom pe­culiar to that country'. But by extension it came to mean 'uncom­mon' and thenceJodd' with the overtones of suspicion and mistrust that oddness moves us to:" x

Some changes in meaning are really striking. What are called se­mantic changes in words have long been under the observation of both lexicologists and lexicographers. Almost every textbook on the study of words abounds in examples of words that have undergone such consid­erable changes in meaning that their primary meanings are almost lost. See the changes in the words nice, knave, marshal, fellow, for example.

In some cases it is difficult to draw a line of demarcation between nonce-words of bookish and of colloquial origin. Some words which have undoubtedly sprung from the literary-bookish stratum have be­come popular in ordinary colloquial language and have acquired new meanings in their new environment.

Bergan Evans, co-author of "A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage" in an article published in The New York Times Book Review says that "Words are living things. They grow, take roots, adapt to environmen­tal changes like any plant or animal." l This, of course, should be taken as a metaphor. But in observing the changes of meaning that words may undergo, the comparison is really apt. The author shows how the word sophisticated, undoubtedly a word of bookish origin, has devel­oped new meanings. Let us follow his trend of investigation. The word sophisticated originally meant 'wise'. Then, through its association with theSophists, it came to mean'over-subtle', 'marked by specious but falla­cious reasoning', 'able to make the worse appear the better reason'. Then it developed the additional, derivative sense of 'adulterated', i.e. 'spoiled by admixture of inferior material'. This meaning naturally gave birth to a new shade of meaning, viz. 'corrupted'. Then suddenly (as Evans has it) the attitude implicit in the word was reversed; it ceased to mean unpleasantly worldly-wise and came to mean admirably worldly-wise. For the past fifteen years sophistication has been definitely a term of praise. By 1958 in John O'Hara's "From the Terrace", sophistication had come to signify not 'corruption' but almost the 'irreducible minimum of good manners'.

Sudden alterations in meaning have frequently been observed in studies of semantic change. The unexpectedness of some of the changes is really striking and can be accounted for only by the shift of the sphere of usage from literary to colloquial. It is evidently the intonation pattern that brings forth the change. Perhaps the real cause of such changes is the ironic touch attached to the word sophistication and also to other words Which have undergone such an unexpected shift in meaning.

It follows then that some nonce-words and meanings may, on the one hand, acquire legitimacy and thus become facts of the language, while, on the other hand, they may be classified аз literary orcolloquial according to which of the meanings is being dealt with.

The ways and means of semantic change are sometimes really myste­rious. To use Evans's words, "some words go hog wild in meaning. The word sophisticated from its colloquial use denoting some passive quality started to mean 'delicately responsive to electronic stimuli', 'highly complex mechanically', 'requiring skilled control', 'extraordinarily sensitive in receiving, interpreting and transmitting signals'. Or at least that is what one must guess it means in such statements as "Modern ra-der is vastly more sophisticated than quaint, old-fashioned rader". (Time)', later "the IL-18 is aeronautically more sophisticated than the giant TU-114." "Pioneer V is exceedingly sophisticated." (Chicago Sunday Times) and "The Antikythera mechanism is far more sophisticated than any described in classical scientific texts." (Scientific American)"

Mr. Evans's article shows how unexpected changes in meaning may be, and how strangely literary and colloquial nonce-coinages may inter­weave.

There is another feature of colloquial nonce-words which must not be overlooked. There are some which enjoy hopeful prospects of staying in the vocabulary of the language. The nature of these creations is such that if they appear in speech they become noticeable and may develop into catch-words. Then they become fixed as new colloquial coinages and cease to be nonce-words. They have acquired a new significance and a new stylistic evaluation. They are then labelled as slang, colloquial, vulgar or something of this kind.

Literary nonce-words, on the other hand, may retain the label nonce for ever, as, for example, Byron's "weatherology."

Nonce-coinage appears in all spheres of life. Almost every calling has some favourite catch-words which may live but a short time. They may become permanent and generally accepted terms, or they may re­main nonce-words, as, for example, hateships used by John O'Hara in "Ten North Frederic."

Particularly interesting are the contextual meanings of words. They may rightly be called nonce-meanings. They are frequently used in one context only, and no traces of the meaning are to be found in dictionaries. Thus, the word 'opening' in the general meaning of a way in the sentence "This was an opening and I followed it", is a contextual meaning which may or may not in the long run become one of the dictionary meanings.

Most of the words which we call here colloquial coinages are newly-minted words, expressions or meanings which are labelled slang in many modern dictionaries. But we refrain from using the term so freely as it is used in dictionaries firstly because of its ambiguity, and secondly because we reserve it for phenomena which in Russian are known as про­сторечье, i. e. city vernacular bordering on non-literary speech.


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