Making new words is up to us

Originally published February 2012

Mechanate (verb) – to make mechanical; the transition from manual to automated.

That’s what the dictionary entry would look like if I had my way. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts, it has not crept into common usage. So in the spirit of the latest round of dictionary updates, I’m starting my campaign to have mechanate join the likes of schwag, gamification and unspellable as official words. And you can help!

Mechanate is not just a random compilation of letters, I've put a lot of thought into it. Well, justification at least.

Mechanate is not just a random compilation of letters, I’ve put a lot of thought into it. Well, justification at least.

Popularity contest

Unlike the French and Swedish, the English do not have a body that governs their language (nor do the Canadians, Australians, South Africans, Americans and the like).

L’Académie Française has been looking after French since 1635 including developing and updating the country’s official dictionary, and has a particularly militant stance on keeping English words out of it. (Not surprisingly then the body’s website is not available in English.)

In Sweden, the Svenska Akademien serves a similar purpose: “to work for the purity, vigour and majesty of the Swedish language” and like its French counterpart maintains the country’s ordbok (dictionary).

Without a statutory body to deliberate when a word becomes official, we English speakers rely on dictionary editors to make the distinction. They in turn trust to corpora – exhaustive collections of texts – forever scanning the universe to determine exactly when a word is used often enough and widely enough to be considered part of the vernacular.

In an interview a few years back, Sue Butler, the editor at Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, explained dictionary types carry around notepads scribbling down words that they hear for future checking.

In other words, it’s a popularity contest! If enough people use it, no matter how ridiculous, it can become official. That being the case, all I have to do to ensure mechanate makes it to the 2013 updates of these illustrious (and extensive) lists of definitions is get all of you to start using it.

So here is my rationale.

It’s linguistically sound

According to the Merriam Webster, mechan- as a prefix means machine, stemming from Greek and goes on to define –ate as a suffix as  ”one acted upon (in a specified way) <distillate>” .

Admittedly, neither Merriam-Webster nor the Oxford give –ate as a verbal suffix, but they do include numerous entries for –ate words used as verbs (obliterate, fascinate, eliminate).  Other sources cite -ate as a way of creating adjectives in Latin a-stem words, for example separate, which in turn became acceptable as verbs.

Wikitionary gives: “(in verbs) to act in the specified manner” while any number of online explanations define it as ”to become”, putting it in the same class as –ise.

Which leads me very nicely to my last point.

There is precedent

In a Twitter discussion about my need to create mechanate, a very sensible and well-known dictionary employee pointed out that mechanise is a perfectly acceptable and established word for the concept I want to explain with mechanate.

But that’s not really sufficient in my book to exclude it.

English is widely considered to be the richest language in the world, and we got there with a wealth of synonyms. Merriam-Webster gives at least 50 just for big in all its definitions. There are nine equivalent words for walk as a verb and obliterate has 18 possible replacements including two other –ate words.

If that’s not enough to convince you, what about one of my pet hates – pressurise. At some time in the past 12 months it became interchangeable with pressure in the sense of pressuring someone into a specific action.

So next time you have the chance, drop mechanate into a blog, article, speech or the like. Together we can change the world – or at least insert a word between mechan- and mechanical.

Posted in Words and language
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