(Words being considered for the Oxford English Dictionary)
According to George W. Bush, “Saddam Hussein has sidestepped, crawfished, wheedled out of any agreement he has made. He’s stiffing the world.”
One might not know precisely what the President has in mind when he speaks of crawfishing and stiffing, but most of us could hazard a pretty decent guess from his colourful language. At times, he’s almost a poet!
Language develops because we create new words, adapt old ones, or introduce fresh meanings for existing vocabulary. Developing slang, used sparingly, is an acceptable use of language.
Others may disagree. Older pedants may take issue with using “kid” to refer to children, for example. Kids are young goats, they say, predictably — often in the letters columns of upstanding newspapers or on phone-ins on daytime television.
If the majority of people understand the word in the context in which it is used, it has developed sufficiently for general use.
President Bush is actually on firm ground. The verb ‘to crawfish’ has been in the Oxford English Dictionary for more than 100 years. It’s an 1840s political term meaning ‘to back out’. Until this presidential pronouncement, the verb has been little used. And if it catches on, there may be transatlantic differences, not least in pronunciation — we say crayfish, he says crawfish, just as they say tomayto and we say tomato. However, if we’re wrong here, we may crawfish from this prediction.
To ‘stiff’ is more modern. Although the OED has been monitoring it for 15 years, President Bush may have hastened its passage to the dictionary.
In such ways does language develop.
As Samuel Johnson wrote in The Dictionary of English in 1755:
“…no dictionary of the living tongue can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away.”