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The Creation of New Words, or Neologisms

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Global Language Monitor says 5,400 new words are created every year. Of these, The Oxford English Dictionary, the final arbiter of the language’s words, deems about 1,000 are in sufficiently widespread use to be added to its database. These neologisms, as they are called, add colour to our already-rich language.

The Oxford English Dictionary could be called the final arbiter of words in the English language.

The Oxford English Dictionary could be called the final arbiter of words in the English language.

How New Words Are Born

William Shakespeare was a prolific creator of new words. When he was stuck for a word, he simply made one up. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with inventing more 1,700 words; other authorities say many are words that first appeared in print under his name but were likely already in common use during the Elizabethan age. Some examples of words that Shakespeare definitely coined are foppish, dewdrop, lacklustre, swagger, and hint.

Modification of Existing Words

Most frequently, new words join our vocabulary by modifying an existing word. Democratise came from democracy and patriotism developed from patriot. Sometimes, nouns become verbs like when party turned into partying. Others include freebie, smoothie, and every scandal that gets “gate” tagged onto it in memory of the Watergate Scandal.

Compound Words

Compound words arrive when two separate words are joined up; daydream and claptrap are examples.

Eponyms

Eponyms turn up when a word is named after a place or person, such as cheddar, sandwich, boycott, and diesel.

Words From Other Languages

English has a well-earned reputation for plundering other languages for words. bungalow (Hindi), kindergarten (German), tattoo (Tahitian), and fetish (Portuguese) are all great examples.

Then, there’s the business of portmanteaus; they deserve a section all their own.

The Original Meaning of Portmanteau

The Original Meaning of Portmanteau

Portmanteau Word Creation

A portmanteau used to be a large suitcase, but the word has now been used to cover the practice of blending two or more words or parts of words together to create a neologism. They’ve been around for more than a century, and many don’t look like portmanteaus anymore: paratroops (parachutes and troops), transistor (transfer and resistor), and motel (motor and hotel).

More recently, we have become awash in the conjoined words to the point where Andy Bodle of The Guardian fears we have reached peakmanteau. Mary Shelley’s monster, Frankenstein, has been enlisted to create several portmanteaus:

  • Europeans are reluctant to eat genetically modified organisms, calling them Frankenfood.
  • Frankenwine is the name given to laboratory-produced wine that has never been close to grapes.
  • In November 2013, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz carried a headline for a story about “8 Imaginary Frankenholidays Inspired by Thanksgivukkah.”
  • Linguistic purists hate this entire trend, calling such concoctions "Frankenwords."

Celebrities often get the treatment too. Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie before the divorce), Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez before he moved on to Jennifer Garner, thereby keeping the moniker going) or TomKat (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes prior to the split up) are all great examples. Such pairings, similar to celebrity marriages, have a short lifespan.

Many other portmanteaus come and go rapidly, but others have staying power. Ginormous, staycation, and shopaholic have all survived to go into general circulation, even if SpellCheck hasn’t caught onto them yet. SpellCheck hasn’t even caught up with its own name yet.

Some portmanteaus are destined for a quick burial and deservedly so. Athevening (athletic and evening wear) seems to have appeared in about 2015 in a ghastly attempt to market jogging pants as suitable attire for a gala dinner. And, there seems to be wide agreement that phablet (phone plus tablet) ought to be put out of its misery (the sooner the better).

New Words From Technology

Thirty years ago, few of us would have used words such as motherboards, gigabytes, and algorithms that now fall trippingly off the tongue. Some people apparently know what they mean.

The digital world has also pinched a lot of old words and phrases and repurposed them. Techie people are among the brightest, so why couldn’t they come up with their own words instead of stealing them from somewhere else? Here are some examples.

  • Mouse: Mickey and Minnie would be surprised to learn their species has been recruited into the digital world.
  • Cursor: Originally, the word meant an errand boy or messenger; it came from the Latin word currere, meaning “to run.”
  • Breadcrumb Trail: Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs when they were led into a forest and abandoned so they could find their way back. So, in the world of the web, following breadcrumbs means tracing back a chain of websites visited. In the story from the Brothers Grimm, birds ate the breadcrumbs; a fate that can easily trip up non-nerds. (By the way, “nerd” is a word created by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book, If I Ran the Zoo.)
  • Cookie: In the 18th century, the Dutch word koekje meant “little cake.” Now, it describes an annoying bit of data that records browsing history that we are encouraged to purge from our computers. One theory suggests it comes from fortune cookie—a cookie containing a message.
  • Spam: The canned meat product was introduced by Hormel Foods in 1937 as a way of selling unpopular pork shoulder. The internet has seized the word to mean unwanted online ads and Nigerian princes with enticing financial proposals.

Pandemic Words

As the mighty pestilence stalks the world, we’ve seen new words and phrases enter our daily discourse: social distancing, N-95 masks, flattening the curve, wet markets, the new normal, and essential workers.

We've been here before during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.

We've been here before during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.

In addition, some clever people have invented entirely new words:

  • Coronageddon: Some use this neologism when tying the novel coronavirus to the biblical end of the world.
  • Covidiot: Some use this word to describe those who believe the effects of the pandemic are exaggerated, chief among these being the current occupant of the White House.
  • Doomsurfing: “The tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.” (Merriam-Webster)
  • CovideoParty: This neologism refers to using smart technology to have a virtual happy hour with friends we can’t meet in person because of isolation.
  • Quarantini: Also known as a “locktail,” quarantini is the new name for whatever your favourite helpful beverage might be to get you through the pandemic. I’ll drink to that!
Quarantini, anyone?

Quarantini, anyone?

Bonus Factoids

The Washington Post has had neologism contests for several years. The idea is for contestants to switch letters around to create new words. Some examples:

  • Typochondriac: A paranoid proof reader
  • Wattleship: A senior’s cruise
  • Coughin: A small enclosure designed especially for smokers
  • Oughtacrats: People who have half a mind to solve all the world’s problems with their brilliant ideas, one of these days . . .
  • Sparadigm: A model panhandler
  • Guiltar: A musical instrument whose strings are pulled by one's mother
  • Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it

Sources

  • “The 422 Words that Shakespeare Invented.” Litcharts.com, undated.
  • “How New Words Are Born.” Andy Bodle, The Guardian, February 4, 2016.
  • “Now We’re Just Making Stuff Up: A Guide to the Rise of the Portmanteau.” Jen Doll, The Atlantic, September 14, 2012.
  • “Frankenwords: They’re Alive! But for How Long? Andy Bodle, The Guardian, February 5, 2016.
  • “We Give You Our words: The Invitational’s Neologisms.” The Washington Post, undated.
  • “From Covidiot to Doomscrolling: How Coronavirus Is Changing Our Language.” Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian, April 15, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 12, 2020:

Rupert, I drink to covidiot likewise. No person will like to distance themselves from such new words. Thanks for informing your readers of the trends.