The announcement by an Indian girl this month that she was going to marry herself introduced many to a new word — sologamy. Kshama Bindu, a 24-year-old sociology graduate from Vadodara, has gotten married to herself. She felt ready for marriage but had no desire to marry a man, or indeed anyone else, so she decided to affirm her love for herself by conducting a marriage ceremony, complete with all the Hindu rituals. She has even found a priest willing to officiate, and has booked herself a two-week honeymoon afterwards — by herself!
While this may seem off the wall, and arguably is unprecedented in India, it is not only not unknown, but even has a word for it, or even two. Just as monogamy is marriage to one person, bigamy to two and polygamy to several at the same time, ‘sologamy’ is the term for self-marriage. Some people even claim that individuals practising sologamy lead happier lives and are able to fulfil their own values and aspirations better. And yes, there is even an alternative term for sologamy: ‘autogamy’. Only one case, but two words for it in the English language! Go figure. Of course, stand-up comics for years used to say that ‘monogamy’ was a synonym for ‘monotony’. What would they say about sologamy, I wonder?
But if sologamy is a new word to most of us, a word we all assumed is new, turns out not to be. When Facebook gave people the chance to ‘unfriend’ others, many of us thought a neologism had been born. After all, what could be more 21st century than a term to abruptly stop sharing the most irrelevant details of your life with someone on social media? But apparently ‘unfriend’ has been around for an amazingly long time. Not, of course, in the sense of removing someone from your list of contacts on social media, a sense in which the usage only goes back to 2003, but just as a word in the English language. ‘Unfriended’ is at least as old as Shakespeare, but it was just used in the sense of ‘friendless’. A person described as ‘unfriended’ was merely someone who had no friends. Whereas the contemporary word ‘unfriend’ is a verb, as in ‘to unfriend’ someone, (‘I suggest you unfriend your ex’, for instance), the noun ‘unfriend’ is recorded from the late 13th century, chiefly in Scottish, and was still in use in the 19th century. It actually meant ‘enemy’ — and calling someone an ‘unfriend’ was stronger than just saying ‘he is not my friend’.
When American politics at the beginning of the century seemed full of people in high office who had a somewhat cavalier acquaintance with the truth — and asserted facts that sounded plausible but were, in fact, not true at all — the satirist Stephen Colbert came up in 2005 with a word even he thought he had invented, ‘truthiness’. It seemed a clever way of saying somebody was lying or exaggerating excessively without insulting them directly — you could accuse them of ‘truthiness’, a term that seemed purpose-built for our brave new ‘post-truth world’. But it turned out that the word ‘truthiness’ has been listed in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1824, not as a pejorative or even sarcastic term, but simply as an alternate word, or synonym, for ‘truthfulness’. When Colbert was told that his neologism not only wasn’t new but, in fact, meant something far more innocent than what he was trying to convey, his response was classic: “You don’t look up ‘truthiness’ in a dictionary, you look it up in your gut!”
Another word that we all assume to be of very recent coinage is ‘influencer’ — a term associated with social media, to refer to people with a large number of followers, who set the agenda, prompt trends, and influence opinions or purchases. Influencers are in great demand from social media marketers, who pay them to post favourable comments on their products on Instagram. But the word itself is not, in fact, new at all, and it wasn’t created by social media. Apparently, the word ‘influencer’ dates back to the 1660s! ‘Influencer’ was used to refer to an influential person, fact or circumstance that had an influence on people — for instance, ‘Her mother’s experience was the biggest influencer on her decision not to marry.’ No one really uses it that way anymore — unless, of course, you want to practice sologamy!
Here are the origins of some more Americanisms that are in common usage wherever English is spoken