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Word Birthing

How does a neologism come into this world? And why? Is this serious business, or just good fun?

New words are a sign of a growing, evolving culture. With new discoveries, new technologies, and new perceptions, we need terms to describe and represent them. Also, some words become dated or worn-out, and need to be refreshed or replaced over time. Groups and subcultures (e.g., sports, gangs, musicians) often create esoteric words and phrases, some of which spill over into everyday language. These and other sources account for the burgeoning harvest of English neologisms that seem to be increasing every year.

Not all new words come into this world the same way. In fact, there are several basic sources for coining words:

Naming: Some neologisms are simply “assigned” to stand for something new. When physicist Murray Gell-Mann identified subatomic particles, for example, he needed to call them something. He assigned the term “quark“, a nonsense word from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Italian author M. Rosano dubbed a dumb or loose woman a “bimbo”, and jazzmen chose “bebop” for a 40’s dance craze (and now, we have “hiphop”).

Fusion: The biggest hatchery of them all, this is the joining or two or more words or word-parts into new coinage. Since all words were once neologisms, the vase majority of English words were fused from Latin, Arabic, Greek, or other ancient language parts (e.g., universe, from Latin unus (“one”) and versus (“to turn”)). Fusion continues at an accelerating level, producing “ebonics” (“ebony” + “phonics”), “wordplay”, “coopetition”, “carjacking”, “vegan”, among many others. 

Portmanteau: Similar to Fusion, the portmanteau is a combination of two words that homogenize into a new word that carries both of their meanings. The newly coined “jobstacle,” means “anything that prevents you from doing your work,” while “burniture” is defined as “furniture you buy at a fire sale” (WordRight, M.C. Andres, Burnaby, BC, Canada).

Description: When computer programmers introduced the “\” symbol, it became known as the “backslash.” It describes it. So does “turnstile” depict a rotating gate, “gofer” suggests someone read to fetch, and “flip-flops” captures the essence of the thong sandal.

Contraction: Some words are shortened versions of their parent term. Examples of abbreviations-turned-words include: “carb” for carbohydrate, “phone” for telephone, “email” for electronic mail, and “cords” for corduroy pants. The fused word “weblog” (a portmanteau from World Wide Web and log) has now been contracted to “blog,” just as.“sitcom,” “modem,” and “defcon” derive from combining parts of two words.

Extension: Words are also enlarged, by having parts added to the front or back. Eighteenth century author Horace Walpole, for example, added a y to “Serendip” (the ancient name of Sri Lanka) and coined a term we couldn’t do without today. Other examples of words on steroids include “discography” (based on disc, as in vinyl recording), “hyperactive”, and “brookage” (WordRight, Leslie Brook of Plymouth NH, USA).

Acronyms: We live in an age of acronyms, as government, technical, and organizational names seek shorthand references. When all letters are capitalized, they remain acronyms (ASAP, FYI, NASA). But some become so familiar they turn into words. The military acronym “G.P.” (for General Purpose vehicle) became “jeep” to the US Army, and has now further moved to a capitalized brand name. A few other common examples: “scuba,” “laser,” “okay,” and”snafu.”

Morphing: Words can evolve. Your mother might “ring you” on the telephone, using a verb that began as a noun that derived, in turn, from a bell sound. You might “google” (here, a verb) something, borrowed from today’s premier search engine GoogleTM, itself derived from “googol” (a coined term from mathematician Edward Kasner, meaning 10100).

Random: Sometimes words just seem to pop up and become adopted by popular culture. Your grandpa smoked a “stogie” despite your grandma’s “phooey” reaction (both terms arose spontaneously). And today, “gnarly” people are “jones’n” (no, not “jonesing”) for whatever “fix” they crave.