Waugh’s Neoligisms

Novelist and critic D.J. Taylor contributed a column on neologisms to the Independent newspaper earlier this month. This was inspired by the release of the Collins dictionary’s latest list of the top new words for this year.  These included “Corbynomics”, “dadbod” and “man spread.” In his review of how such new words enter the language, Taylor considers  “the ability of highly coded ‘insider’ language to suddenly break out of its corralling in a tiny demographic subgroup and turn mainstream…” A case in point is offered by:

 Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies (1930), a typescript of which was given to the novelist’s elder brother, Alec, towards the end of 1929. While proclaiming himself a fan of the book, Alec enquired: did anyone really use such phrases as “sick-making” and “drunk-making” with which the story was littered? Well, yes, Evelyn conceded, one or two of his friends sometimes employed this kind of argot. Six weeks later, by which time the novel was in proof, Alec noticed that the parties he attended were full of revellers insisting that such and such a beverage was “not very drunk-making” or that one of their number lived in “a very sheepish house” – an adjective Waugh is supposed to have embedded (to use a word that very probably turns up in this year’s Collins) in his text merely to honour the pet lamb owned by the 12-year-old sister of his friend Nancy Mitford…By the week of the book’s publication, on the other hand, the entire West End of London, so far as Alec could tell, was falling over itself to borrow from this new lexicon. And yet in Vile Bodies’ extraordinary colonising progress lay the seeds of its obsolescence. For nothing is so insubstantial, so liable to be superannuated or simply to shift its meaning, as a neologism.

Alec Waugh concluded the passage with the recognition that within six months the expressions would have become “old hat.” His description of the neologisms in Vile Bodies comes from My Brother Evelyn and Other Portraits (New York, 1967, p. 195), although the bit about the origin of “sheepish” and Deborah Mitford’s pet lamb must come from somewhere else.


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