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15 Aug 2019

When New Words Come Along

I’m reading a book that was first published in 1846 and (admittedly in a translated-from-the-Russian version) there is a moment when the hero is struck by the glossiness of his boss’s shoes, ‘acting as powerful reflectors’:

‘That’s called a high-light,’ thought our hero. ‘The term is used particularly in artists’ studios…’

Not only is the word ‘high-light’ hyphenated and printed in italics, both devices to show that the idea is quite new, but the author feels obliged to explain what it means. Any of those three things would be completely unnecessary today.

It made me think that it can’t be much more than three years ago that we were seeing ‘Brexit’ in inverted commas, suggesting that the word was a recent coinage and the concept as unfamiliar as ‘high-lights’ were in Dosteovsky’s day.

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