word of the month
A new word is born: How are new words formed?
Language is a dynamic phenomenon. Although English has a basic core of words which are fundamental to sentence construction and have remained consistent over centuries, there are also a great number of words which both enter and leave the language as the years go by, a direct reflection of the preoccupations of society in any particular era. Some new words are ephemeral, tied to cultural or technical concepts which fade in significance. Others stay the course, usually because they represent concepts which have become permanent features of society.
But just where do all these new words that pass through or infiltrate the English language come from? In this article we take a closer look at the processes by which new words are formed, showing that new words and expressions are far more about reinvention than actual creation.
Surprisingly perhaps, very few new words in the English language are actually completely 'new'. In fact, completely new words account for less than 1% of all English neologisms.
Those completely new words which do appear are often based on proper nouns. One of the most famous historical examples is the noun sandwich, taken from the name of the 18th-century Earl of Sandwich (who devised a convenient way of eating bread and meat which would allow him to continue sitting at a gaming table!). Brand names in particular, have led to the formation of completely new words, and continue to do so. The verb/noun hoover, used as a generic term for (the action of using) an electric vacuum cleaner, was based on the name of the 19th-century American industrialist William Henry Hoover. With increased evidence of forms like dysoning and dysoned following the same model, lexicographers today are debating formal recognition of a verb/noun dyson, based on the famous vacuum cleaner designed by the 20th-century British designer James Dyson. In the online world, a new verb google, based on the trademarked name of the popular Internet search engine, is now used as a generic reference to the action of 'doing a search on the Internet'.
Completely new words like dyson and google are, however, more unusual. The vast majority of new words and expressions in English usually include at least one lexical component which is already familiar to us. If we look carefully at the new words that have entered the English language during the last few decades, we can identify several linguistic processes which are regularly involved in the creation of new words and expressions.
New words and phrases emerge as a direct response to the need to refer to new concepts, and one of the most straightforward ways of doing this is to simply combine existing words, which together make a sensible representation of a new idea. Many neologisms are therefore compound nouns. For example, it's strange to think that in the 1970s, the concept of a phone which could be carried or used anywhere without the need for wires or cables was an amazing prospect, but by the late 80s the word mobile phone was part of everyday language, even if not everybody could afford one! By the 1990s, we weren't just using mobile phones to communicate orally, but also to send text messages. New compound nouns are not always confined to the domain of new technology. For instance, in the noughties, those searching for romance might consider speed-dating, someone who was struggling to remember something might confess to having had a senior moment, and those of us with a sweet tooth might be worried about the prospect of a fat tax. Creative combinations of words like these stick when they fill lexical gaps for new concepts, spread into popular usage, and thereby gradually push their way into the dictionary.
New compound nouns are not always open compounds. Examples of recently coined solid compounds include furkid (a pet which is a substitute child) and healthspan (the period of life during which a person is healthy). New compounds are however often based on existing patterns of structure and meaning. Healthspan, for instance, follows the model of its earlier counterpart lifespan. In the latter part of the 20th century, a face-lift became a fashionable operation in cosmetic surgery designed to remove the effects of facial aging. In the 21st century, people can have a more complete makeover in the form of a body lift, and those concerned about how they sound rather than how they look can consider a voice lift. In the 1980s there was a revolution in the market for fast food. In the noughties, by contrast, amid growing concern about dietary health and a stressful pace of life, slow food is taking a stand. Like established compounds, new compounds sometimes also occur in productive patterns, so for instance as well as spinach cinema, a term coined in the nineties to refer to films that are not very exciting but informative or educational (i.e.: a play on the idea of spinach being 'good for you'), we also now have spinach television and spinach books.
As well as combinations of existing words to form new compounds, the combination of parts of existing words is another common process in the formation of neologisms. This phenomenon, often referred to by linguists as blending, is an established word formation process which has been in evidence in English throughout the centuries. For instance the word brunch, referring to a large mid-morning meal, is a combination of parts of the words breakfast and lunch which was coined in the late 19th century. In 2003, the same word formation process gave birth to a term which was voted most useful new word of the year by the American Dialect Society: flexitarian, a combination of the words flexible and vegetarian used to refer to a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat.
Though blending has been evident over many decades, it has been particularly prominent as a source of neologisms over the last few years, with a growing tendency towards cannibalising chunks of existing words with increasing ingenuity and inventiveness. There are no regular strategies for blending, the only consistent criterion is that at least one of the words involved in the fusion has something chopped off it. In practice, the formation of blends is moulded by such factors as ease of pronunciation and catchiness. Among the many recent examples are movieoke (a blend of movie and karaoke) referring to a karaoke-style activity involving acting in front of a movie screen, nouse (a blend of nose and mouse), a computer mouse which is controlled by the nose, edutainment (a blend of educational and entertainment), used to refer to forms of entertainment i.e.: TV programmes, games software, which are educational, globesity (a blend of global and obesity) describing the worldwide epidemic of obesity, and freegan (a blend of free and vegan) referring to a person who consumes food that has been thrown away.
Of course even easier than combining or blending existing words is simply to find new ways of using words that already exist. The widespread use of computers and the Internet has been a major breeding ground for this process, with new senses for words such as window, mouse, bug, virus, surf, net and web now being part of everyday English. Some words can continue to accumulate new senses over a long period of time, especially if their meaning particularly lends itself to figurative extension. For instance, the word zombie started life in the late 19th century as a description of a dead person revived by voodoo witchcraft. By the 1940s, the word was being used with its familiar sense of a lifeless, apathetic person, (the idea being that such an individual resembled a revived corpse). Since the advent of the World Wide Web, the same word has appeared as a reference to an insecure web server, an out-of-date website, and more recently a PC which has unwittingly been affected by a virus causing it to send out large amounts of spam. By analogy with the original sense (the actions of a zombie were said to be under the control of the person who had performed the resurrection) this recent use of zombie conveys the idea of control of someone else's computer.
Sometimes the new use of the word involves not just a change in meaning but a shift in word class, a process technically referred to as conversion. An obvious example is the word text, which quite clearly started its life in English as a noun but now occurs as a verb in relation to the sending of text messages, e.g.: I've texted him but got no reply. Conversions from verb to noun sometimes also occur. A prominent example in 2003 was the verb embed, which in the context of the Gulf War acquired a topical sense referring to the placing of journalists in military units. The hundreds of journalists, reporters and photographers involved were subsequently described as embeds, journalists who join military forces in a conflict and report from the front line. Adjectives too, can be adopted into a new word class. A recent example is vague, which, largely due to the cult TV programme 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', has now morphed into the phrasal verb vague up, meaning 'to make something less clear or detailed', as in I vagued up certain parts of the story.
Using an existing word to describe a new concept can sometimes be tied up with euphemism. Unpleasant concepts can often seem more palatable if they are wrapped up in a familiar word. An example from 2005 was the word rendition, which, a long way from its familiar sense relating to performance of music or drama, came to represent the practice of extradition of suspected terrorists, also converting to a related verb to rendition.
Abbreviations are another area which over the years has been a rich source of new lexical items. Often abbreviations enter the dictionary as new 'words' in their own right, words which we understand and associate with particular concepts without necessarily knowing what the initial letters represent. For instance, we all now know what a DVD is, but would the average man on the street definitely be able to tell you that this stands for digital videodisc? Gadget lovers may be interested in mobile phones which are equipped with WAP, but would they necessarily know that this is short for wireless application protocol? The point is that they don't need to know, because such abbreviations function perfectly well on their own as representations of particular concepts. New abbreviations are often associated with new technology and devices, as illustrated by recent examples such as IM (instant messaging) and PSP (playstation portable). This is not their only domain however. For instance, WMD has frequently occurred over the last couple of years in place of the full term Weapons of Mass Destruction, and DWY, standing for driving while yakking, refers to the now illegal practice of driving while talking on a mobile phone.
Those abbreviations which really thrive as new words are often the ones which roll off the tongue easily, or in other words, function as acronyms, abbreviations consisting of letters that combine as a plausible sequence of phonemes to form a word. One area that has been a particularly fruitful source of acronyms over the last few decades is popular demographics, from 1980s DINKY (young, upwardly mobile professionals, standing for double income no kids yet) through to noughties SKI-er's (older folks who enjoy their retirement by spending their savings, standing for spend the kids' inheritance).
Acronyms are even more likely than other abbreviations to be understood as meaningful lexical units in their own right, so much so that they are frequently decapitalised. Take the word tardis/TARDIS for example, which started life in the cult series 'Dr Who' as the name of a time-travel machine (an acronym of Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) and over the last three decades has entered mainstream use in the UK as a description of an 'unexpectedly large space'. Some more recent examples are asbo, (from ASBO: anti-social behaviour order), the civil order introduced by the British government in 1999, and bogof, (from BOGOF: buy one get one free), regularly seen in the context of supermarket shopping. Sometimes acronyms combine with inflectional processes to produce other new verbs, nouns and adjectives. A recent example is the acronym RIF, standing for reduction in force and used as a euphemism for termination of employment (usually due to the financial concerns of the employer). RIF now occurs as a transitive verb as in 365 workers were RIFed …, and also as a participle adjective as in RIFed employees.
The 21st century has witnessed an explosion of abbreviated forms in English due to the enormous influence of chat rooms, interactive message boards, text messaging, and e-mail, underlying all of which is the need to communicate effectively but economically. These forms of communication often try to simulate real time conversation, so speed and ease of typing is of the essence. There may be other considerations too, such as the fact that providers of mobile phone networks usually restrict users to about 160 characters per message. These factors make abbreviated forms an integral part of electronic communication, but often these forms creep into general use. For instance, informal abbreviations such as LOL (lots of love), TTFN ('ta ta' for now), FYI (for your information) and BTW (by the way) are now generally understood in all forms of written communication. In the business world, abbreviations such as B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) are now universally recognised.
We've already shown that new words are often formed by cannibalising existing words in inventive ways. A related approach is to find new ways of using recognised affixes, creatively attaching them to established words as a means of expressing a new idea. A recent example is use of the prefix re- in the new verb regift, which refers to the action of giving something as a gift that you yourself originally received as a gift. Re- of course means 'again', as occurring in verbs such as rewrite or reinvent. The prefix de- is often used to mean 'opposite' or 'reverse'. The new noun deshopper therefore refers to the opposite of a shopper, describing a person who buys something, uses it, but then returns it to the shop for a full refund. Established suffixes too, are often used creatively. For instance the suffix -ology refers to the scientific study of a particular subject. In the late 90s the term trolleyology was coined by American anthropologists to refer to the study of how the contents of a person's shopping trolley show something about that person's behaviour or personality.
Occasionally, the processes of affixation and blending overlap. Sometimes a component of a word used in a blend starts to behave productively, applying itself to other words and looking like a new kind of productive affix. For example, earlier in this article we talked about the new blend edutainment, a combination of the words educational and entertainment used to describe TV programmes and games software that are educational. In fact, the suffix -tainment has recently appeared in a whole range of coinages, including irritainment, referring to broadcasting which is annoying but at the same time rather compulsive, advertainment, which is advertising that entertains, and militainment, referring to news coverage of war. Similarly the prefix franken-, which started life in the term frankenfood (a blend of Frankenstein and food used to refer to genetically modified products), has become associated with the idea of being freakish and unnatural, subsequently appearing in words such as frankenfruit, frankenpet and even, appropriately enough, frankenword, a tongue in cheek expression coined in the mid-nineties as it was observed that a growing number of neologisms were being formed from creative combination of existing words.
Of course more straightforward than any of the processes
outlined above is simply to grab words from other languages, a process
linguists refer to as borrowing. Borrowing has been a feature of
English vocabulary development for centuries. French, Latin and Greek
are obvious influences, but also Asian languages such as Hindi, which
for instance in the 18th century gave us shampoo (from the Hindi
Thousands of new words are coined every year, the majority of which will fall into the patterns of word formation which we have outlined above. There are occasional wild cards, such as the recent term bling-bling (which refers to large pieces of expensive, eye-catching jewellery, and is thought to have originated from the Jamaican slang for the imaginary "sound" in cartoons when light reflects off a diamond), but the majority of new words are based on creative manipulation of the lexical building blocks already present in English.
The key to survival for all these new words is usage. With the advent of the World Wide Web, language has a bigger platform for usage and propagation than ever before. 21st-century English vocabulary therefore has the potential to expand at a faster rate than in previous generations. Real longevity however is not just based on usage - words stay in our language only if they represent concepts which continue to exist over the passage of time. It remains to be seen whether a hundred years on people will still google for information, go speed-dating, become flexitarians, get RIFed, regift their unwanted presents, and spend time doing a sudoku.
Next month I'll look at how new words are formally recognised
and included in native-speaker and learner's dictionaries.
For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.