Coriolanus, the Oxford English and research into language

As a copywriter I’m acutely aware of how important it is to communicate clearly without gobbledegook, jargon and unnecessary complexity.

I’m also aware of how quickly language alters. Take ‘wicked’, whose meaning has changed profoundly in just a few years from something to avoid to something wholly good.

Coriolanus highlights the ever-changing face of the English language

Four hundred years’ worth of evolution makes Shakespeare’s language difficult to understand these days, until you develop an ear for it. Watching Coriolanus, the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler and the splendid Vanessa Redgrave, I was reminded all over again about the ever-changing face of English.

So what’s right and what’s wrong?

When do you stop using a word or phrase the old fashioned way and switch to its new meaning? Given that many new words and corruptions of existing words are driven by younger people, the youth market is often the obvious place to start. Use ‘wicked’ in the original context and you’ll confuse the hell out of them. But if you’re writing for the over 60s, the new meaning might not have filtered through yet. As with so much in marketing, it’s a balancing act – a matter of common sense.

2500 new words added every year – The Oxford English dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary adds any where between 2000 and 2500 new words every year, which shows just how fast our language is growing. But even the good old Oxford English doesn’t capture all of them. When a couple of researchers at Harvard studied the books Google has digitised from the 20th century, they found around 8500 new words entering our language every year. Some never make it off the starting block. When, for instance, was the last time you used ‘reptating’ or ‘postcoarctation’?

Scientists research language evolution

Scientists have been carrying out research into the way language changes, studying texts from the past 1000 years, and they’ve found that the less frequently a verb is used, the more likely it is to become ‘regular’. For example we don’t often use ‘to wed’ these days. Instead of ‘newly wed’, most of us say we’re ‘newly wedded’.

From there, it’s possible to extrapolate and make educated guesses about which words will survive in their original form and which will switch. A good example is ‘slunk’, which is apparently rare enough to have a 50% chance of being corrupted to ‘slinked’ some time over the next 300 years. Researchers also speculate that the word ‘men’ could eventually become ‘mans’.

One way to ensure your content will be understood by the optimum number of people is to write the way most of us speak.  Which is exactly what the most successful marketing campaigns do. As well as promoting clarity, using common parlance keys directly and powerfully into the Zeitgeist. Add correct grammar and punctuation to avoid misunderstandings and your message stands the best chance of making a positive impact on the broadest range of people.