When we think of language change, it tends to be new coinages that spring to mind (rewilding, deepfake, zoombombing), but in fact, a lot of new language is created by putting existing words together in new combinations, that’s especially true of phrasal verbs and idioms.
For the latest editions of two new Collins COBUILD dictionaries of Phrasal Verbs and Idioms, we used the Collins New Monitor corpus to seek out combinations that have appeared or increased in frequency since the previous editions in 2012. Several areas cropped up as particular sources of innovation.
As digital technology continues to evolve and develop, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we create new terms to describe how we interact in online and digital spaces. With a lot of teaching and learning moving online, language learners are increasingly likely to find themselves wanting to refer to messages that pop up on screen, to ask why a section of text is greyed out so they can’t click on it or to describe how they’ve been searching up some information online.
If you’re in the world of commerce though, a pop-up might instead be a business, such as a restaurant or shop, that appears in a location just for a short time. Business innovations are constantly throwing up new terms to describe changing practices and processes. You might hear about information in an organisation cascading down from management to staff. As an employee you might manage up; carefully developing relationships with those above you. Or you might find yourself in a meeting to talk about scoping out new possibilities, deciding whether to take them forward or reaching out to new customers.
Journalists are always on the lookout for new ways of describing the world to make events sound more dramatic and attract readers’ attention. In the world of politics, things are frequently described as being ramped up or dialled down. People with strong beliefs speak truth to power and call out what they see as inappropriate behaviour.
As we were researching at the end of 2019, we saw a lot of use of the phrasal verb lock down (and its noun form, lockdown) mostly in the context where people are told not to leave a building for their own safety during a serious incident. Little did we know how on point lockdown would become in 2020 as we all suddenly found ourselves being urged to stay at home to protect ourselves and others.
The global nature of social media means that previously niche slang terms spread quickly. On trend expressions such as spill the tea, meaning to share the latest gossip, or throw shade, to publicly show disrespect for someone, both originate in specific speech communities but have moved into the mainstream largely thanks to social media.
In digital online spaces, the boundaries between spoken and written language also get blurred. Having access to social media data has provided more evidence for expressions used mainly in conversation that may not have been captured so well in previous corpus data. We saw how people preface opinions with expressions like for what it’s worth (sometimes abbreviated to FWIW). When giving advice they ask you to take it from me to hint at their experience of something similar. They emphasize agreement with phrases like you and me both or isn’t it just?
So, if you want to zhuzh up your vocab, check out the new editions of Collins COBUILD Phrasal Verbs and Idioms Dictionaries. Be careful not to stuff it up though. Make sure you check exactly when and where it’s appropriate to use your newly-learnt expressions, you don’t want to sound like you’re trying too hard to get down with the kids 😉