Evolving words explain a ‘curiouser’ world

It is said that the one constant in the world is change. But is it just me or do many of the changes lately, especially in politics and culture, seem so rapid, so unexpected, so bitter and so, well, off-the-wall?

I can’t help feeling our world is becoming one weird wonderland. “Curiouser and curiouser,” Alice might cry, and I would be inclined to agree with her.

And it’s not just here in the U.S. Over in Britain, birthplace of our Mother Tongue, there is currently a contentious debate between the “Brexit” or “Bremain” factions. These words refer to the choice British referendum voters will make to either leave the European Union or to stay. The choice seems to boil down to Great Britain continuing as an EU member and ceding some political independence to Europe or leaving and reverting back to a single sovereign nation. Most observers predict a close vote.

While I am interested in the political aspects of the story, what really caught my attention were the two words coined for the debate. “Brexit” and “Bremain” are examples of what linguists call “portmanteau” words. A portmanteau is a word that is formed by combining parts of different words and their meanings to make a new word. “Brexit” is a portmanteau of “Britain” and “exit” while “Bremain” is made of “Britain” and “remain.”

Curiously, the first use of “portmanteau” with this meaning was by Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice and her Wonderland. Originally, it was a word to describe a suitcase that opens into two equal sections, but in the story Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice about “mimsy” — “flimsy and miserable”— and other unusual words in the poem “Jabberwocky.” “It’s like a portmanteau,” Humpty says. “There are two meanings packed up into one word.”

As often happens when a concept or idea occupies my mind, I start noticing similar examples all around me. As I continued reading international news stories I came upon another unfamiliar portmanteau. It was in an article about the Bilderberg Meeting, an exclusive annual gathering of world leaders and executives. According to the article, this month “about 130 people — including three prime ministers and 30 CEOs — will conduct talks on the world’s most pressing issues.”

Some of the pressing issues are one you might expect such as cybersecurity and migration, but one is a word that is new to me: “precariat.”

This word, popularized by British economist Guy Standing, describes “… a growing class of people who feel insecure in their jobs, communities and life in general.”

This group, Standing explains, is composed of “the perpetual part-timers, the minimum-wagers, the temporary foreign workers, the impoverished piecemeal workers … seniors with dwindling benefits, indigenous people who are kept outside, single mothers without support, cash laborers who have no savings and the generation for whom a pension is neither available nor desired.”

“Precariat” is a portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat.” The word “precarious” is used in the sense of “precarity,” which economists and sociologists define as “a condition of existence without predictability or security.” The social class to which the word precariat refers is a rapidly expanding population and is a worldwide phenomenon. According to Standing, this group is “alienated, anomic, anxious and angry” and is giving rise to populist politicians around the world.

I’m glad to know these words. I suspect Brexit and Bremain will have a short shelf life and won’t be used much after the referendum. But I’ll bet precariat will be around for a while. It is useful and clarifying. It helps me to think about some of the hard-to-fathom changes that are happening in these strange times. It helps me to understand a little better why the world around me just seems to get curiouser and curiouser.