Genuine New Words


Prospero and Miranda

(This post is inspired by William Shakespeare, David Crystal, Lucy Ferriss, John and Adele Algeo, and Donald Trump. My appreciation to them all.)

I’ll start with Shakespeare. Who wouldn’t? With apologies to The Tempest:

Miranda. O wonder!
How many goodly creations are there here!
How beauteous Merriam-Webster is!
O brave new word, that has such meaning to it.

Prospero. ´Tis new to thee.

Thanks for that explanation, Prospero. You and your daughter are evidently discussing a new dictionary of hers, if I have that quotation right. And his is the correct explanation: A word is new if it is new to the person who uses it.

Next, David Crystal, in his Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar (Profile Books, 2017).

Crystal illustrates the gradual learning of the grammar and vocabulary of a language with the example of his daughter Suzie. By the time she tuned 3, Suzie had mastered the basic rules for noun plurals but still sometimes said “mans” for “men” and “mouses” for “mice.” It’s unlikely anyone would have spoken those regular forms in her presence, so Suzie clearly invented them on her own and deserves credit for those creations. They are new to her.

This month on Lingua Franca, Lucy Ferris gave a perfect example of her own new-word creation while “feeling nauseated on a long car ride when I was about 8. … I had heard of people being seasick. But we weren’t at sea. So I thought I would coin a new term for how I felt. ‘Mommy,’ I said from the back seat. ‘I think I’m carsick.’”

We all create “new” words like this. Why? Because it’s so easy. In their excellent collection Fifty Years Among the New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms, 1941-1991 (Cambridge U.P., 1991), John and Adele Algeo say that combining existing words or word parts is the most productive source of new words. Add a prefix or suffix to a word you know, and there you have a new one: the prefix agri- to business, for example, or the suffix -aholic to work.

But compounds, the Algeos say, “are the most numerous type of combination.” Among numerous examples they include spaceship, executive privilege, jet set, chump change, punch-drunk, behind the curve.

You can create new words by shortening too: photo op, rehab, sitcom.

But here’s the thing about new words: Many are invented many times. The parts and techniques are ready and waiting, available to all. It is an exception, rather than the rule, to have a new word invented only once, with all other uses traceable back to that first use. Once you have seasick, a word that goes back to the 16th century, it’s easy to create carsick (1908), airsick (1785, referring to balloons), spacesick (1912). The years in parentheses are the earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, but they aren’t likely to be the true or only originals. In Google Ngrams, for example, the earliest example for carsick is 1908, same as for the OED, but they are different examples, and both look as if the term isn’t particularly new.

Then too, many new words that achieve lexicographic recognition become obsolete and require reinvention if they are to continue. The Algeos’ book is filled with new words we no longer use: steel-collar worker (i.e. a robot, 1981), machinespeak (computer language, 1983), Chiclet (small computer keyboard, 1983), alcohol arcade (pub serving underage customers, 1986), for example.

Which brings us to President Trump, who found himself using the phrase “prime the pump” the other day in an interview with a reporter from The Economist: “Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just — I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.”

It’s what we all have to do, to keep our favorite words alive.

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