Fake New Words?


Noctes Ambrosianae used “truthiness” in 1832.

How can you tell if a word or phrase is really new — or just new to thee?

Easy question. But it’s not easy to answer, especially in this digital age.

It used to be easier. Or so it seemed back in 1990, when the American Dialect Society first began choosing its Word of the Year. For the first year or two, we restricted our choices to new Words of the Year, based on a simple principle: A word was considered new if it was not to be found in the latest editions of serious American (and British) dictionaries. That included, in those days, Merriam-Webster’s New International, Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate, American Heritage, Webster’s New World, and their British counterparts. Many of them added a few handfuls of new words with each reprinting so they could advertise being more up-to-date than the competition.

In other words, if no professional lexicographer had captured a specimen of a word and put it on display in a dictionary, it was a new word. Simple as that.

Unfortunately, we soon found out that it was not so simple. Once we had chosen a “new” word as Word of the Year, time and again our lexicographers found earlier instances that had slipped unnoticed past the dictionaries. “Not” negating an expression, for example, as in “This is a new word … Not!,” popularized by Wayne’s World, was ADS Word of the Year 1992, but instances of that expression abound as far back as the start of the 20th century.

It wasn’t long till we had to drop the “new” from “New Word of the Year” so that we could include words that were not necessarily new, just newly prominent.

Meanwhile, the internet was insinuating its way into our lives and those of lexicographers, making it easy to find much earlier instances of a word. Hitherto all new words had been vetted by professionals who netted them mostly from their own systematic reading of leading publications: magazines like Time and newspapers like The New York Times. They obtained new words mostly from only the smallest proportion of the whole language, but this ensured that they were sources that mattered most for readers of dictionaries.

(For an intimate description of lexicographers at work at Merriam-Webster in those days, see Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries, just published by Pantheon. I’ll have to review it for Lingua Franca soon.)

But then, with the internet, the floodgates were opened, and huge quantities of words never before vetted by lexicographers floated by. With the help of Google Books and Google Ngrams, for instance, you could quickly and easily locate an early instance of truthiness, the ADS Word of the Year for 2005, in the Century Dictionary for 1911, which cites an earlier use: “Truthiness is a habit, like every other virtue. There I hold by the Peripatetics. Noctes Ambrosianae, Feb., 1832.”

But is Noctes Ambrosianae really the origin of modern truthiness, or was it reinvented for the 21st century?

Well, that brings us back to the fundamental question: With so many more sources for antedating, when can we be sure a “new” word is really new?

I’ll have an answer, inspired by perspicacious President Trump, next week.

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