Looking at the collection of new words and expressions in the latest update to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries I was struck by the ‘alternative’ nature of many of the terms – how they challenge conventional ways of thinking, mash up concepts from different categories or simply find an informal workaround.
The word alternative dates from the mid-16th century, but from the 1960s it started to acquire a slightly different meaning – ‘different from the usual or traditional way in which something is done’ – and has been applied to energy sources (alternative energy and alternative fuel, which mean alternatives to fossil fuels) and to medical treatments (alternative medicine and alternative therapies – which can describe any type of treatment that does not use the usual scientific methods of Western medicine). Then there is alternative comedy, which rejects established (often racist and sexist) comic stereotypes and often has a left-wing political element to it. The phrase alternative lifestyle is first recorded in the New York Times in 1968 in connection with ‘antiwar, antidraft and radical left groups’. It is strongly associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, and with such things as environmentalism, vegetarianism and veganism, as well as pacifism and left-wing politics. If ‘alternative’ has an opposite, it is probably conventional: you can talk about conventional medicine and conventional methods and you can say of somebody (with a hint of disapproval) that they are very conventional in their views.
Since the 1960s, though, many things have changed. Environmentalism and vegetarianism have become thoroughly mainstream (in the West: in some other cultures, of course, being a vegetarian was always mainstream). The term ‘alternative’ however – now frequently shortened to the combining form alt- – is even more prolific than before in creating new terms. One of the most prominent of these is the alt-right in the US – first recorded in 2003 but which became popular as a term in the 2010s. It may be significant that the ‘alternative’ stance is now located on the far right of the political spectrum, rather than the left, although the ‘alt-’ tag has as much to do with methods as with views – a rejection of normal political processes and the use of the internet to promote their beliefs. But most alt- compounds have nothing to do with politics. The earliest appears to be alt-rock – a style of music that combines traditional rock music with other musical styles. This has been followed by numerous other alt–compounds on a musical theme: corpus data from 2021 yields the following: alt-country, alt-folk, alt-punk, alt-pop, alt-metal, alt-classical, alt-band. Connected with diet and veganism, we find alt-meat, alt-protein, alt-milk and alt-dairy – all denoting plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products. And then there is the alternative economy of altcoins and alt-money, used for trading online.
Another pair of words that have acquired new meanings that are featured in the latest OLD update are disrupt and disruption. The root meaning of ‘disrupt’ is ‘to make it difficult for something to continue in the normal way’. As with things described as ‘alternative’, disruption may be seen as a challenge to the status quo. As the examples in the ‘disrupt’ entry show, the source of that challenge can be human beings acting deliberately, an incidental result of other actions that are taking place, or the forces of nature:
Demonstrators succeeded in disrupting the meeting.
Bus services will be disrupted tomorrow because of the bridge closure.
The bad weather has seriously disrupted supplies of food.
The new meaning of disrupt, used in a business context, identifies a new source of disruption – technological innovation. We generally think of innovation as a good thing but the concept of digital disruption draws attention to the challenges faced by traditional industries when their methods and systems become obsolete in the face of new technologies:
Our radical new printing technology is disrupting traditional manufacturing.
No industry today is immune to digital disruption.
Alongside these two words there is also a new entry for disruptor – meaning a company, person or technology that causes this kind of disruption:
These high-tech companies have expanded on their early success to become major industry disruptors.
Of course, we are all currently experiencing a completely different kind of disruption to our lives. For many of us, it is technology that has enabled us to continue working and connecting with each other – even if remote learning feels like a poor substitute for in-person contact. This brings me to my favourite new word on the latest OLD update list: smize. It means ‘smile with your eyes’, an alternative approach that many of us have adopted in these days of face masks, and helps to show how adaptable both people and language can be.
Diana Lea is a dictionary editor in the English Language Teaching Division of Oxford University Press.
You can see all the new words and phrases added to OLD here.