Neologisms: how made-up words become actual words

Have you ever wondered why “to google” is actually a word now (it was added by the OED in June 2006), but “to yahoo” or “to msn” etc are not?  Now, the fact that “to google” can be found in the OED was of course not what made it a word, it just gave some justification to its already widespread usage. After all, despite my great respect for the folks working on it, the OED is not the authoritative judge of what is an English word and what is not.

The truth is that there is no definitive authority, either for the English language nor any other widely-used language, which decides whether something is a word or not. After all, a language is not a list of words and rules that are set in stone. And if you don’t believe that, go watch this very intelligent man called Stephen Fry explain to you why you might just be wrong. I’ll wait for you here. Back? Good. As I was saying, language is a living entity that is constantly evolving through usage, and it evolves in new and unexpected forms in lexis, grammar and all other aspects. Nowadays most people will understand what you mean when you say “I heard about xyz and didn’t know what it was, so I googled it”.  But how did it come to that? Quite simply, actually. Someone must have used it first. Then other people started to use it, too, thinking it made sense. It spread and spread and spread and eventually so many people used it that it had become generally accepted. The fact that Google is the most widely-used search engine favoured its rise over “to yahoo” or “to msn”, if there ever were such terms.

New words are constantly coined, especially in the sciences. The easiest way for one of these coinages to be used outside a tightly-knit circle such as the community of neurobiologists in a lab somewhere at the UCL or you and your friends at the bar is simply for the new word to fill a lexical gap. This is very easy when it comes to new inventions such as the car or the computer. We needed a word for it, someone called it computer, we then had a word for it, and then we used it. It’s even less difficult to introduce a new word if you’re introducing the thing it names at the same time, of course. You call an iPad and iPad because Steve Jobs thought it would be a neat idea to call it that. If you were to suddenly call it an iCrap, you might be closer to an apt name for it, but few people would join in because an iPad already has a name. If there is already a term that describes the item, idea or general concept of what you’re trying to name, it’ll be very hard to get people to use your word. For instance, you’d be hard pressed to get everyone to call a car a tuma (I just made that up).

Still, words can enter lexical competition and newer words can replace older terms regarding widespread usage. Sometimes they will then exist side by side and be interchangeable, especially if their meanings are not 100% the same. A good example for this is the German word for handkerchief, Taschentuch and the name of the most widely used brand of these in Germany, Tempo. If you’re asking someone for a Tempo around here, you’re not asking for the specific brand, but a handkerchief in general. Sometimes the rise of a new term will cause the old term to change its meaning, for example to acquire a pejorative connotation: when the french Dame slowly replaced the older German word Weib as a general term for woman, the latter eventually acquired such a connotation. Another possible outcome is that the older term will be completely replaced and disappear from everyday use, or at least be considered archaic in its usage, such as the English knave (interestingly enough, its German equivalent Knabe, which is descended from the same Germanic term, is undergoing the same)

So as you see, anyone can make up new words, and if they find their place within the language and enough speakers find their use valid, they’re as much part of it as any older words. Shakespeare, for instance, made up words whenever it suited him, coining new terms as well as starting the whole thing with converting adjectives into nouns, nouns into verbs and all those other ways that are possible in a language as flexible as English. He is said to have made up around 1700 words (though a good portion of that were probably already in use before him, and his works are just providing us with the first written proof of their usage). Getting accepted into such prestigious clubs as the Oxford English Dictionary may be considered something akin of a “knighthood” for a word, if you will, but it’s not required. However, that does not mean that making up new words is suitable in any situation. Remember that one of the primary functions of language is as a means of communication. If the other side cannot understand you, it fails to achieve that function. You should not, for instance, write a master’s thesis and use a whole bunch of words that you just made up – even if they fill a lexical hole in English, your professor is likely to not be pleased.

Published in: on June 6, 2011 at 9:56 am  Leave a Comment  

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