Words become past tense
quicker than ever,
says Roger Ratcliffe

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I love how new words keep entering the English language. It’s a bit like each tide that washes up beaches brings a fresh supply of the tiny crustaceans and plankton on which all shore life depends.

Similarly, these new words nourish our language. They don’t all survive, though. Some words that just a few decades ago were freshly minted and relevant are now rarely heard. Payola, a portmanteau American-Italian word, defined the now illegal practice of music industry producers paying bribes to disc jockeys to get records promoted on radio stations. It’s also a long time since I read or heard the word yuppie, an acronym for those ”Young Upwardly-mobile Professionals” who earned high salaries in the booming financial sector of the 1980s and 1990s.

Other words that encapsulated an era have at least partially endured, the best example being Watergate. That was coined to describe the bungled attempt by former US president Richard Nixon’s Republicans to bug his Democratic Party rivals at a Washington building of the same name, a scandal that saw him kicked out of the White House.

Last week a new word derived from Watergate was named as one of the words of 2022 by Collins Dictionary. You’ve guessed – Partygate. Shamefully, though, the official definition of “a political scandal over social gatherings held in British government offices during 2020 and 2021 in defiance of the public health restrictions that prevailed at the time” omits the name Boris Johnson.

Apparently the lexicographers who compiled the dictionary’s latest edition sifted a word cloud comprising eight billion usages in media and social media before designating Partygate one of their top ten words of the year. I think we could all have saved them the trouble.

But even Partygate has begun to sound almost as dated as payola or yuppie, although it’s likely to last longer than other political “gates” like Pastygate, George Osborne’s failed attempt to slap 20 per cent VAT on takeaway Cornish pasties in 2012. Such has been the lightning speed of recent events that newer words are already defining the government – Trussonomics, for example. This long word, unheard until a couple of months ago and so not yet in the dictionary, describes Liz Truss’s attempt to boost economic growth through extensive tax cuts. The disastrous consequences of higher mortgage repayments and savage cuts to public services are likely to ensure the word will long outlive Partygate in the public’s minds.

The lexicographers covered themselves though. They may not have heard of Trussonomics but presciently they chose Permacrisis as the dictionary’s top word of the year, a Collins spokesperson explaining that “it sums up just how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people”.

Permacrisis is a close relative of 2012’s top word of the year, omnishambles, which was devised by writer Tony Roche for the BBC political satire The Thick Of It. To me it suggests that the omnishambles created by the first couple of years of Conservative government has now become permanent.

We have still to learn 2023’s word of the year, of course, but since we are already being softened up to expect a real annus horribilis through an even deeper cost-of-living crisis, increased fuel bills, predicted power cuts and the unpredictable war in Ukraine, it is unlikely to be very fluffy.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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