One of the best lines in Poldark last week belonged to Beatie Edney as servant Prudie. Bemoaning the failure of her breakfast bun (Great British Bake Off it wasn’t), she blamed the loss of her ‘skillage’. Now skillage is a lovely word. It does not however, exist (as my spelling autocheck is telling me). No I do not mean spillage. Or skill age. Or silage (and how is that a word anyway?) Skillage may not be a word, but it is very clearly right in context and character.
Is this how new words come into being? I remember in my first PR job using the word ‘signage’ for the first time; and it being queried by a client. Convinced I was about to be fired, I assured them it was one of those glamourous ‘marketing’ words so rife in the world of event management. Which of course it was, constantly used internally and now part of the dictionary, my spell check tells me. Signage, clearly all things relating to signs.
So how long is it before a word becomes acceptable, purely because enough people use it? My family has a tradition of referring to the television remote as the ‘buggy’. It also refers to someone in charge of something as the ‘meister’; a corruption of master. So the person in charge of the television remote becomes the buggymeister; on occasion shortened to the buggymeist. Obviously, a nonsense word, but now in use throughout my wider family; and no doubt catching on wherever they change channels. One day I will hear my children’s friends use it and the circle will be complete.
Another example of how words come into being is describing things in relation to something that has come into existence recently; stimulating a whole range of new adjectives. Going back to our favourite adventurer, parts of the Cornish coast are now described as ‘Poldarkian’ in marketing terms (and no doubt it will soon lose the capital letter). Harry Potter is responsible for ‘Potteresque’ (how I wish it could be ‘Potty’). Dr Who has a fan base described as Whovians, fascinated by the Whoniverse. Star Trek fans of course are Trekkies.
So language expands as new points of reference come into being. And it also contracts, as habits and usage die out (porringer, thrice, troth, welkin). Language is therefore always current, a reflection of the moment, and using it correctly a skill (age).