Language is like soil. However rich, it is subject to erosion, and its fertility is constantly threatened by uses that exhaust its vitality. It needs constant re-invigoration if it is not to become arid and sterile. – Elizabeth Drew (1887-1965)
Language is a dynamic phenomenon which accurately reflects contemporary society. The English lexicon has mutated over time from a variety of parent languages, primarily Latin, French and Old English, which originally derive from the prehistoric Proto-Indo-European. Though certain core words hark back to the fundamental origins of the language, and remain more or less consistent, over time many new words have been added – a direct reflection of the preoccupations of a society at any particular time in history. These new words, around 3000 in each language annually, are called neologisms.
A neologism (from Greek néo-, meaning ‘new’ and logos, meaning ‘speech, utterance’) is a new term which has entered common use, but has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language. Neologisms appear due to developments in social life, culture or science, and are usually directly attributable to their specific era. In his paper ‘Explorations in translational creativity: Strategies for interpreting neologisms’, Helge Niska defines neologisms as ‘tokens of a creative process…growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other’. Some new words are closely tied to temporary phenomena, and fade into insignificance, while others, related to enduring aspects of society, remain, and become permanent features of our lexicon.
Before the establishment of widespread cheap print, the evolution of language through the appearance of neologisms was much more difficult to track. Some dictionaries were only revised every forty years, meaning that vital changes in language, particularly those ephemeral, were missed. Today, dictionaries update their corpora at least once a year, and online dictionaries represent huge linguistic databases, often allowing users to contribute terms and definitions to reflect the way language is used.
Those interested in the upkeep of the English linguistic hoard can look forward to the annual unveiling of the ‘word of the year’ list published by the Collins dictionary. Last year’s batch of neologisms saw such linguistic gems as ‘Corbynomics’, aka ‘the economic policies advocated by the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’, and ‘dadbod’, defined as ‘an untoned and slightly plump male physique’. But where do these new words come from, and how do they come to be accepted?
Neologisms pass through three stages: creation, trial and establishment. The new term enters common language as a ‘protologism’, which is used only by a limited audience. It is then diffused, until finally it becomes widely accepted and stabilised – a stability which is indicated by its appearance in glossaries, dictionaries and large corpora. When it comes to their origin – as with the above example, where Corbyn and economics, or dad and body are fused together – neologisms are often a blend of existing linguistic fragments, which are used to coin a new term.
In fact, very few of the new words which appear in the English language are completely ‘new’ – they account for less than 1% of all English neologisms. The vast majority of new words and expressions include at least one lexical component which is already familiar to us. They are formed through several linguistic processes, such as compounding: where existing words are combined (speed-dating, text messages), blending: where parts of existing words are fused together (brunch – breakfast and lunch, flexiterian – flexible vegetarian), re-appropriation (with new senses for words such as mouse, virus, surf, web), abbreviation (DVD – Digital Video Disk, IM – Instant Messaging, but also colloquial usage as in LOL – laugh out loud, or BTW – by the way) or affixation: where recognised affixes are creatively attached to give rise to new concepts (such as regift – to give something as a gift which you originally received as a gift yourself, or deshopper – describing a person who buys something, uses it, but then returns it to the shop for a full refund). Perhaps the simplest of all linguistic processes used to create new words, is that of borrowing, where words from other languages enter common use. Borrowing has been a feature of English vocabulary development for centuries, with words such as shampoo (from the Hindi word cmpo, meaning ‘massage’) or latte, an espresso coffee with frothy steamed milk (from the Italian word for milk), now completely indistinguishable from their ‘original’ English counterparts.
Yet, more than three-quarters of the words proudly added to the language in 2016 will be forgotten a decade hence. So how do some neologisms manage to ‘stick’, while others disappear into linguistic nothingness, a mere nostalgia of concepts, people and events gone by? The key to survival for all these new words is usage. With the advent of the internet, language has a much bigger platform for usage and propagation than ever before, giving it the potential to expand at a previously unobservable rate. Yet real longevity depends on more, it is linked to the existence of the concept which these neologisms represent. Today we google information and like posts on Facebook, but it remains to be seen whether these words will survive the test of time in the ever-evolving world of technology. For, after all, neologisms are words that appear from nowhere, exert their significance in a bid to become accepted, and exist for just as long as the people using them find them relevant. It is this which ensures the ongoing fertility of our linguistic soil.
Written by Iweta Kalinowska
Communication Trainee at TermCoord
Kerry Maxwell, MED Magazine, 2006 http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/April2006/37-New-Word.htm
Helge Niska, ’Explorations in translational creativity: Strategies for interpreting neologisms’, 1998 http://www.oocities.org/~tolk/lic/kreeng2.htm
Forough Sayadi, ‘The Translation of Neologisms’, Translation Journal, 2011, http://translationjournal.net/journal/56neologisms.htm
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, The White Review, http://www.thewhitereview.org/art/neologism-how-words-do-things-with-words/