If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a single word – or lack of one – speaks volumes about a culture.

Words that reflect our world

It stands to reason, that if we need to communicate about the world around us, then we need words that reflect that world. These words – and their meanings – change as the world around us changes.

Until 2020, for instance, ‘furlough’ was a seldom-used, largely military term meaning ‘a period of time that a worker or a soldier is allowed to be absent, especially to return temporarily to their own town or country’*. Now, of course, we all know it as a government-backed scheme that, for a while at least, allowed workers to remain employed, and partially paid, whilst being unable to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Certain words and phrases – such as ‘social distancing’, ‘key worker tan’ and ‘the rule of six’ – simply weren’t part of our vocabulary until our circumstances dictated that they were needed. The use of other terms, like ‘home office’ and ‘Zoom meeting’, have grown with us as more of us work from home and attend meetings remotely.

Words that don’t exist

On the flip side, languages tend not to have words for things that are not an integral part of the culture(s) that they represent. We can perhaps see this most clearly for words that have no direct translation in other languages.

A few years ago, ‘hygge’ (the Danish concept of warmth and cosiness) became a big trend in home interiors and self-care. Whilst as a nation we largely embraced this concept – and created many different (generally incorrect!) pronunciations of the word – there is no direct translation for ‘hygge’ in English.

Whilst it might not always seem like it, the UK enjoys more hours of daylight than Denmark (which can have as little as 7 hours of daylight a day in winter). The Danes use hygge to make their increased hours of darkness something to embrace, enjoy and even celebrate. Whilst we have many of our own traditions, some of which are arguably similar, the UK doesn’t have its own direct version of hygge, so doesn’t need a word to express hygge in our own, dominant language.

Words that time forgot

Language can be revolutionary, but more often than not words sneak into – and exit – our vocabulary almost without us noticing. In 2019, over 650 new words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – a startling reflection of just how quickly our language, and the culture that it represents, is changing.

I, for one, hope that we don’t lose some of our most obscure and intriguing words in the process. I love the fact that the OED never removes a word that has been included, but preserves it as if in aspic, even if it is rarely used in contemporary culture.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all started using almost forgotten words and phrases again? Like the cyclical nature of fashion, baby names and the trend for ‘modern vintage’, maybe it’s time to dust off our old language and give it a resurgence. Now, there’s something to think about.

See you on the morrow.

* Cambridge English Dictionary