Friday, August 23, 2013

Coining new words

Anyone can create a new word. The trick is getting anyone else to use that word.

Toddlers unintentionally invent new words all the time. Forty years ago my toddler son had trouble saying Fritos. It came out friggy-toes, obviously a confusion with piggy-toes. Some corn chips do look a little bit like a baby's toes, don't they? I know parents are supposed to teach their children language, not the other way around, but we thought friggy-toes was so cute that we all started using the word. It was soon shortened to friggies. All these years later, I still sometimes refer to corn chips as friggies, but I am the only one who does. When I die, that word is likely to die with me.

Two factors may be most important in the acceptance of a new word.

1. Need. When a new word is needed, a new word is found.

Edward Fischer, anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, tells of a tribe that at one time applied the same word to all metal objects. Whether they were talking about a tin box, a knife or an airplane, they called each of them the same thing. This didn't last long, however. As they encountered more and more metal objects, they quickly found a new word for each of them.

In our own culture, new technology also requires new words. Words like texting and blog were coined over the past few years because technology made them necessary.

2. A prominent sponsor. When it comes to coining words, some people obviously have more influence than others.

This includes anyone who invents or discovers something new. Naming rights is usually one of the perks that goes with being an inventor or discoverer.

Major publications like the New York Times and Time magazine can give a major boost to new words. If they use them, others will starting using them, too.

Important writers whose work is widely read can have a major influence on language, although this is probably not as true today as it once was. William Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words into the English language. These include cranny, lonely, summit, radiance, majestic, hint, frugal and brittle. Scholars have said that as many a a tenth of all the words in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets cannot be found in earlier written material.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died at 29, yet in his short life he introduced an amazing array of new words. These include bloodstain, moonlit, steamship, expressionless, undefeated and interestingly, among many others.

Thomas De Quincey, best known for writing Confessions of an English Opium Eater, also brought a number of new words into the language, among them subconscious, incubator, postnatal and intuit.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Horace Walpole with originating 233 words. These include boulevard, bask, somber, caricature, malaria and beefy. Of course, Walpole had a few duds, too. He also suggested greenth, gloomth and betweenity as new words, but they never caught on.

Betweenity? Personally, I think friggies is a better word.

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