Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

April 2009

-ian ranking
Ballardian adj 1. of James Graham Ballard (1930-2009), the British novelist, or his works. 2. resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

Visionary writer JG Ballard was an uncanny predictor of humanity's social evolution, and his name joins a list of authors who have become adjectivized. Words changing their part of speech is very common in the English language. When nouns and verbs switch their identities, the process is known as nouning (e.g. This year's spend...) or verbing (e.g. computerize). Verbing can occur by simply adding the suffix -ize or -ise to a noun. In this case, proper nouns can become adjectives just as easily, by appending -ian or -esque. This illustrious group of author-adjectives includes Beckettian, Lovecraftian, and Tolkienesque, and is an unsurprising linguistic development considering the widespread recognition of the aforementioned writers and their bodies of work. Indeed, it is likely that more people are familiar with the literary themes of, say, Crime and Punishment (admittedly the clue is in the title) or Moby-Dick (less so) than have read the books themselves. (This is certainly the case with 1984, which was recently voted the book most people lie about having read.)

But at what stage do such descriptive words transcend their origins by taking on a greater meaning than the author's text, and thus start a life of their own? For example, the use of the word Dickensian summons up images of deprivation, dusty windows, cruelty, and gruel for tea, but is rarely used to describe being surprised by a series of phantoms in the wee small hours. The labelling of 'french fries' as 'freedom fries' in the wake of the invasion of Iraq is an Orwellian idea if ever there was one, alluding as it does to an attempt to control individual opinion, but not necessarily one specific to Mr Orwell's writings. And Kafkaesque can be applied readily to any situation involving confusing or unfeeling bureaucracy.

The obvious answer is that if an author becomes universally recognised, and their works represent an easily identifiable set of themes or circumstances (or a consistent worldview), then their name sometimes takes on a different significance and forms a more permanent part of the English language. Perhaps this is why this lexical evolution is more common among political figures and world leaders (in words such as Stalinist, Reaganomics, or Generation O[bama], for example), who by definition purport to stand for something greater than themselves.

Stranger than -fication
Any event that attracts media saturation provides a flurry of either completely new words or less-well-known words that become pushed to the forefront of the public consciousness. April had its fair share: the G20 summit brought attention to kettling (a method of policing that involves containment of large groups of people) and the G2 (political shorthand for the US and China, considered by many to have the most globally significant economies) while the press coverage of The First Lady's image prompted rampant adjectivization in the form of momification, Jackiefication, and Oprahfication. And the recent scandal over political emails vacillated between emailgate and smeargate as its designated title in the media, while also popularizing the phrase spad (an abbreviated form of special adviser).

New media coverage, blogging, and of course the Twitterverse mean these words are able to come into currency at a remarkable rate. Time will tell if these words become rooted in everyday English. We will be watching the corpus intently…

Duncan Black - Editor


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