You’ve Not Heard The Last Word Yet

SCOTSMAN James Murray, a member of the Philological Society and a teacher at London’s Mill Hill School, embarked on a fateful journey in 1879 that’s reaping dividends for all of us even today. No, he did not discover any new continent. He was the chief editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which could be completed only by 1920, five years after Murray had passed away, and was issued in 10 volumes. The dictionary today is available in 20 volumes, on CD-ROM and online as well. 


That’s part of the inimitable quality of the OED, as it is popularly known. Its ability to assimilate and grow, in step with the changing times and evolving linguistic trends, has become its distinguishing feature. The dictionary, which is updated every quarter, has been including many new words — from different languages and from street patois — over time. For instance, the June 2007 update includes the new words “mahurat” and “mahasabha”! It also includes the word “chill pill”, which is a derivative of another slang term “chill”. 


There’s another place where a thin line exists between slang and jargon. It’s called the modern-day workplace. Industries have routinely thrown up language and new words closely associated with their undertaking and peculiar to their occupation. The software professional, for instance, has the special ability to string technical terms into perfectly comprehensible sentences. In March 2007, OED included the word “virtualize”, it seems, as a passing nod to the growing tribe of software professionals. In the 1980s, the securities firms of Wall Street issued paper with funny “feline” names – LIONS, CATS, TIGRS. These were names of special kind of securities — CATS stood for Certificates of Accrual on Treasury Securities (invented by Salomon Brothers), TIGRS was shorthand for Treasury Income Growth Receipts (introduced by Merrill Lynch) and LIONS meant Lehman Investment Opportunity Notes. 


Even on Dalal Street, there’s a new, exclusive kind of language being coined by business television channel anchors and equity research analysts employed by securities firms. Interestingly, this same language can now be found creeping into the usage of other professionals. In many ways, this is also how new words find their place in the OED. In any case, here’s a look at just a few words, selected randomly, that seem to have gained considerable currency and velocity: 


    * De-growth: This word does not exist in the dictionary. At least not in the OED, since that’s the point of reference for today’s column. In short, this word has been conjured up by analysts to convey a certain sense which, otherwise, would have used up more than one word. It typically means when growth rate is slowing down – for example, if a company’s sales grew 24% two years ago (over the previous year), 20% last year and 18% this year, then instead of saying decelerating growth (awkward actually), the market has found “degrowth” more convenient. 
    * Going Forward: Simply means ‘in the future’! The reason for the popularity of this phrase is unclear, though one can hazard a guess that ‘going forward’ probably sounds more energetic, summons up a sense of motion and generally sounds more officious. 
    * Space: Usually means ‘sector’ or ‘industry’. When a TV anchor usually asks an equity analyst, “How do you see the engineering space”, what he actually means is: “What are your views about the prospects of companies in the engineering industry? Will their share prices move up?” 
    * Underweight: No, this has nothing to do with the perils of investing in the Indian stock markets. It is an euphemism as well as a clever device employed by equity analysts for indicating that it’s time to sell a particular scrip. By indicating “underweight” in a research report of a company, the analyst is able to achieve two things simultaneously. One, he manages not to upset the company management by avoiding the word “sell”. Also, at the same time, he is able to indicate to his clients that the time to sell has indeed come. 


Verbal communication has evolved over time to include many new words and sounds. In many organisations, the vehicle for communication too has changed over time. Many offices took time to adjust from lengthy letters and inter-departmental memos to emails. Once that happened, instructions through cellphone messages are now slowly gaining acceptance. These new channels have now spawned their unique language. wot nxt?
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