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What's in a word?
Professor Michael Hoey
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Focus on Language
Awareness: Word formation

Introduction
Common processes of
word formation in English
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New word of the month
Compounds and blends

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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

whitelist noun [C]
a list of people or things that are approved and are therefore allowed to do something

whitelist verb [T often passive]

whitelisted adjective

'Britain is to close the door on thousands of asylum seekers by adding seven countries, including Sri Lanka, to its whitelist of countries presumed to be safe.'
(Alan Travis, The Guardian, 18th June 2003)

'An e-mail will only reach my mailbox if the sender's address is whitelisted.'

Dating right back to the 17th century is the term blacklist, describing a list of people or things who are not approved of and therefore barred from certain activities. The term whitelist is an informally coined antonym which has begun to enter some native speaker dictionaries during the last twenty years, though in fact first appeared somewhat earlier, around the turn of the 20th century. The use of whitelist as a verb first occurred in the 1970s, though the widespread use of e-mail technology in the last ten years has been a major factor in securing its place in the English language. A whitelist can be used with specific reference to a list of e-mail addresses that are enabled to pass an e-mail blocking program (or spam filter), specified by the user as bona fide sources. This has promoted whitelist as a verb, often used passively as illustrated above, and adjectival use as in a whitelisted e-mail/sender. As we have observed in previous articles, the popularisation of neologisms in IT often establishes them in mainstream use in the media, as illustrated by the first quote above.

In the case of whitelist, an antonym of an established word (blacklist) has been coined by simple adaptation, giving the 'opposite' of one of its components. This is an obvious thing to do because blacklist is what is technically referred to as an endocentric compound, i.e.: it is a 'type of list', we can therefore change the 'type' by adjusting the first part of the compound. This simple process of word formation is regularly applied in the creation of new words and phrases. Another recent example is elderweds, a plural noun coined to describe people aged sixty or over who re-marry or marry for the first time (compare: newlyweds). Similarly the beforemath is a new noun to describe the circumstances that lead up to a particular event (compare: the aftermath).

The same process can apply beyond the scope of endocentric compounds. For instance in the countable noun hand-me-up the preposition is adjusted to give reference to something which is given from a younger person to an older person (compare: hand-me-down). Similarly a makeunder refers to a change of appearance involving a simpler look with little make-up and an ordinary hairstyle (compare: makeover). Coinings like the verb prepone, meaning to schedule something for an earlier time than first envisaged, show adaptation by a simple prefix pre- (the opposite of post- as in postpone).

Sometimes new words are coined not by the introduction of 'opposites' of word components but related words, so, for example, from proofread we have prooflisten (a verb meaning to listen to a recording of words or music in order to check for errors). Similarly the phrase quarterlife crisis has been developed from the term midlife crisis (the feelings of worry and doubt that some people have when they reach middle age). Quarterlife crisis refers to the feelings of anxiety and confusion experienced by people in their mid-twenties after completing their education.

So what other processes of word formation are involved in the creation of neologisms? Certainly one of the most popular ways of coining new words appears to be the use of blends or portmanteau words. A blend is a new word formed from parts of two (or possibly more) words in such a way that it cannot be further analysed into morphemes (i.e.: the smallest meaningful components of words). Familiar examples are words like brunch (breakfast and lunch) and chunnel (channel and tunnel). The use of blends is a long established concept in English word formation. Reference was made to a portmanteau word as far back as 1872, in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty is explaining the words of a poem and says:

"Well slithy means lithe and slimy. Lithe is the same as active. You see it's like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word."

Humpty's reference to portmanteau even predates the works of Ferdinand de Saussure and general recognition of linguistic analysis, but it is precisely this enduring process of word formation that can be observed in the neologisms of today. Examples from the last few years include:

bungaloft noun [C] a house which is basically a bungalow (on one floor) but has a room in the loft (blend of bungalow and loft)

jetiquette noun [U] the polite way of behaving when travelling on an aircraft (blend of jet and etiquette)

touron noun [C] informal a tourist who is annoying or does not know very much (blend of tourist and moron)

celebreality noun [C, U] the real life of a celebrity, or a TV show where a celebrity participates in a situation from real life (blend of celebrity and reality)

avoision noun [U] actions which represent something between legal avoidance and illegal evasion of the law (blend of avoidance and evasion)

Blends are not necessarily confined to combinations of two words. A three-part example from the gastronomic world is the noun turducken (a blend of turkey, duck and chicken). The famous American chef Paul Prudhomme coined the term in the eighties in a recipe for a Thanksgiving dinner. A turducken is a boneless chicken stuffed with sausage meat, which is stuffed inside a boneless duck, which is in turn stuffed inside a boneless turkey. The dish is very labour intensive and can take several hours to prepare. The related compound turducken team therefore refers to a group of friends or relatives who gather specifically to prepare and eat turducken.


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.