Posts From the Editors
A new blog post, slash you should read this!
It’s my job to pay attention to new words, and I come across them all the time. Some will likely go nowhere (Lena Dunham dreaming grunch doesn’t make it so) while others seem pretty promising (glasshole, for example, seems destined to take off). For a new word to become established—that is, useful to and used by a large number of speakers—it’s helpful if that word has a meaning that can be easily deduced by those unfamiliar with it. This is why successful new words are so often formed from existing words and elements. Obesogenic, for example, has a clearly recognizable armature in obese and -genic; e-reader adds a newish combining form to an old word.
What’s not common is finding a new word that’s developed from the name of a punctuation mark, which is exactly what Professor Anne Curzan has found evidence of among her students at the University of Michigan, as she relates in her most recent post on the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s an example:
Does anyone care if my cousin comes and visits slash stays with us Friday night?
Clearly the writer here thinks there’s value in writing out the word slash where a punctuation mark would be far more efficient, and Curzan’s students report that they even spell out slash in texts and tweets, circumstances where the very form demands truncation not expansion. Curzan’s students aren’t the only ones who are doing it. A recent article in the New York Times refers to “a room-size art installation-slash-musical instrument.”
It’s not unprecedented for punctuation to take on a lexical function: It happens. Period. We’ve quote-unquote seen it before. (Those both date to the early 20th century.) What’s more remarkable is what else Curzan’s students are doing with slash, as in the following examples:
I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?
Has anyone seen my moccasins anywhere? Slash were they given to someone to wear home ever?
I’ll let you know though. Slash I don’t know when I’m going to be home tonight
Curzan glosses slash in these cases as “something more like ‘following up.'” Other glosses might be “with regard to that” or “to clarify.” I found my own example of this use of slash in a Facebook search of public posts where there was the following exchange between two people (who, for all I know, are in Curzan’s class):
S: I want to come visit soooo badly!!
K: we should discuss
S: Yes. Slash we should Skype and discuss!
Here, as in Curzan’s examples, slash is doing something different from what it’s doing in the example about the cousin or in the Times article. It’s joining clauses and sentences, which is what a conjunction does. It’s also qualifying the sentence or clause it’s attached to, which means that it seems in fact to be functioning as a conjunctive adverb. That’s right: a punctuation mark has become an adverb.
This is an atypical example of “functional shift,” the process by which a word or form comes to be used in another grammatical function. Functional shift is a pretty common way for new words to be formed—we see it in “text me,” where the verb text derives from the noun text meaning “text message”—but as Curzan points out, a new conjunction or conjunctive adverb is like a linguistic rare-bird sighting. Just how rare is this rare bird? By Merriam-Webster’s count, the 20th century saw the creation of a mere four conjunctions, all of which date to between 1949 and 1955: iff (used in logic to mean “if and only if”), nevermind, plus, and unlike. As for conjunctive adverbs, only a single conjunctive adverb appears to have been coined in either the 20th or 19th centuries: even so, which dates to 1930. A rare bird indeed.
I admit I’m rather thrilled by this new use of slash. Unlike the typical avian rare bird, linguistic rarae aves often go from uncommon to commonplace, sometimes very quickly, and this one seems particularly promising because of our familiarity with the punctuation mark and because it’s such an efficient little creature. I’m curious to see where the conjunctive adverb slash is headed, slash I’m wondering if I’ll get to write a definition for it. I hope so.
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