Mistakes or Neologisms?


Whenever I hear a word that is new to me, or is used in a new way, I now take the precaution of looking in the OED before claiming in these posts that it is either a mistake or a neologism. Two usages have come to my ears this week which have sent me scuttling in that direction, both heard on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme.

The first was on Tuesday, when Emma McNally, organiser of the Women’s March in London on Sunday 29 January 2017, was interviewed. She used the word ‘precarity’ /priˈkarɪti/, which was completely new to me. My immediate reaction was that this was a neologism to replace ‘precariousness’, which is what she seemed to mean in the context. I didn’t have immediate access to the OED, but a handy iPhone gave me several on-line dictionaries which defined it as “a term used by sociologists to refer to the spread of contingent work and insecure employment within the labour market. The term is also used to refer to the subjective condition of those who experience insecure work.” (quoted by Oxford Reference website from A Dictionary of Human Resource Management). So my initial feeling was correct, but if it has been coined to cover a meaning in sociology which may be called part of the sociologist’s professional jargon, then ‘precariousness’ is still probably the better form to use in a general situation. The OED itself does not yet have an entry for ‘precarity’, with any meaning.

Second, this morning (2 February 2017), John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, twice said that MPs who voted against the Labour Party’s leadership in the Brexit vote the night before would have to “wrest with their consciences”. I’m becoming used to people saying ‘wrestle’ when they mean ‘wrest’, but this is the first time I’ve heard the opposite.

Also in this morning’s ‘Today’ programme, the BBC’s political journalist Ian Watson said that some Labour whips had “flaunted” their leadership’s instructions by voting against the same Bill.

And there was more to come: Melvyn Bragg, and at least two of the contributors to his ‘In Our Time’ programme about Hannah Arendt, called her /əˈrent/, with stress on the second syllable, a pronunciation I can’t find given for her in any of my reference books. I know that speakers of US English often stress ‘foreign’ names automatically on the last syllable, possible because it “must be” more authentic, but these were all British English speakers, and ought to have known better. Where did they get this from? For the record, /ˈɑːrənt/ is the only pronunciation given by the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation.


  1. For ‘precarity’ see Judith Butler

  2. Jane – I have just gone through Judith Butler’s essay “Precarious Life” and noted the appearance of ‘precariousness’ at least seven times, but I could not find a single example of ‘precarity’, although I should have thought that this was exactly the context in which she might have used the word. Perhaps I’m mistaken.

  3. Jane – Thank you for pointing this out: Professor Butler is another who says /əˈrent/, which reinforces my view that it is a typical US reaction to a foreign name.

  4. Most of my news comes from French television, where I hear “précarité” a lot. As a result, if I heard “precarity” in English it would sound quite natural.

  5. Thanks, Athel. This, then, raises the question – has ‘precarity’ been developed from the English word ‘precarious’, or is it simply borrowed from French? My Larousse Dictionnaire Etymologique dates ‘précarité’ back to 1823.

  6. The OED entered precarity in 2018, giving its origin as developed in English but influenced by French: “< precar- (in precarious adj.) + ‑ity suffix, probably after French précarité”. First citation from 1910.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.