Neologism: n [F néologisme, fr. ne + log + isme -ism] (1803) 1 : a new word, usage, or expression. 2 : a meaningless word coined by a psychotic — ne-ol-o-gis-tic adj.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition
In the 2000s (or the noughties, oughties, or zips), a newly minted word has had an unprecedented opportunity to be heard beyond its original creator. With 24-hour media coverage, and the infinite space of the Internet, the chain of ears and mouths has never been longer, and the repetition of a new word today takes a fraction of the time it would have taken a hundred, or even fifty, years ago.
Very roughly speaking, there are five primary contributors to the survival of a new word: usefulness, user-friendliness, exposure, the durability of the subject it describes, and its potential associations or extensions. If a new word fulfils these robust criteria it stands a very good chance of inclusion in the modern lexicon
Susie Dent, The Language Report: English on the Move, 2000-2007. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007
As a translator and editor working toward a deadline, I must constantly decide whether or not a word has been accepted as mainstream vocabulary. My first stop is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but language moves faster than a dictionary is updated. Digital communication has sped up the introduction and acceptance of neologisms—the new words and phrases that ceaselessly enter written and spoken English discourse—and is responsible for many of the new words coined during the last decade.
The American Dialect Society keeps track of new words entering our vocabulary and periodically issues lists that members consider the most creative, most useful, and most likely to succeed. According to ADS, the most useful word of 2002 was google as a verb form. Surprisingly, “dot-com” caught their eye earlier. It was rated as the most useful and most likely to succeed neologism in 1999. Way back in 1990, the term “personal computer” and the expression “politically correct” competed for the abbreviation “PC.”
Information technology has generated a tsunami of technical terms and acronyms. IT and Internet terms have made the American Dialect Society list almost every year for more than a decade. Their 1992 recognition of “snail-mail,” “s-mail,” and “slow mail” as antonyms of electronic mail left many of us wondering what word should be used to describe traditional mail. I still pause for a second when I need to decide between “regular mail” or “normal post.” These terms were followed by “information highway” in 1993, “cyber” as a prefix in 1994, and “World Wide Web” in 1995. The society praised the use of “dot” instead of “period” in describing email and URL addresses in 1996, gave their blessing to DVD in 1997, and declared the mere prefix “e” to replace “electronic” the word of the year for 1998. “Cybersquat” was recognized in 1999 as the term that best described the new phenomenon of the registering of Web addresses of brands, companies, or individuals for the purposes of selling them to their namesakes or slandering them. In 2004, ADS dubbed the verb “to phish” as the most useful new word of the year, an honor captured by “podcast” two years later. “Googlegänger,” a moniker for a person with a name identical to yours who surfaces in an Internet search, is another Internet-related word they’ve honored as a creative contribution to the English language (2007). I have several googlegängers; one works as a commercial operations coordinator for ESPN in the New York metro area and another has recently received a black belt in karate in the American Midwest. “App” finally made the ADS list in 2010. Although the society’s yearly list is created in the spirit of fun, it is a solid reference for anyone interested in the dynamics of the English language. According to the ADS website, members of the 121-year-old organization include linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, authors, editors, professors, university students, and independent scholars. Forbes magazine has published a cleverly illustrated version of ADS’s list and added a wish list of their own. According to Forbes editors, “Twitterati” is a word in its own right and should be in the dictionary. The folks at Forbes also think that someone should launch “facestalk”—which they consider to be a perfect term for people who use Facebook to “obsessively check up on ex-spouses, high school flames, and college sweethearts.” Perhaps this would be undesirable behavior that wouldn’t qualify as out-and-out “cyberstalking.”
Although technology may have topped the list for a decade, many other neologisms daily insinuate their way into our speech and writing. Some such as Y2K have enjoyed their moment of glory and are now seldom heard. (We’ve definitely been there, done that, and have since lived through worse situations.) The days of “metrosexual” are probably numbered too. Even the letter labels invented to pin down the essence of each new generation of young people have lost much of their shine.
If the current economic crisis has made the subtle differences between generations X and Y less important, it also spawned some new terms such as “subprime” and “zombie banks.” In an article written for the Malta Times, Cassar White ruefully records other crisis neologisms that include “blingrupt” (suddenly bankrupt), “outshipped” (transferred to a remote facility), and “slayoff” (delivering severance notices in a particularly brutal fashion such as sending SMS messages).
A number of unwieldy neologisms such as “tabloidification,” “English-ification,” “Brit-ification,” and “EU-ification” have recently shown up—sometimes in the best of company. Remembering another new word, “globalization,” I began to search for a rule that might determine when a neologism should be formed with the suffix “ization” and when it should take “ification.” Garrett A. Wollman offered this explanation in a Google English forum:
-ificati-” comes from the Latin verb “facere”, to make, sometimes through French and sometimes as a direct borrowing from scientific Late Latin and “-iz-”comes from the Greek verb-forming suffix “-izein”, through Latin and usually but not always French; “-izein” verbs in Greek became “-izare” verbs in Latin, and “-are” verbs became “-er” verbs in French form nominals in “-ation”. There are, however, many neologisms featuring both of these affixes, which have nothing to do with any Greek or Latin heritage, and other than some English speaker’s perception of euphony there is no rhyme or reason for the choice between them.
In English Word Formation: a history of research 1960–1995, Pavol Štekauer also states that nominalization endings are determined by verb suffixes. ADS member Randy Alexander recently pointed out in an online forum that although “efy” verbs take an “efication” ending (liquefaction, putrefaction, rarefaction, stupefaction), verbs with “efy” endings are few and far between, and the human tendency is to “bring the odd ones into line.” Another ADS member (and WordPress blogger), Arnold Zwicky, has devoted an entire post to neologisms crafted with the suffix “ification.” He has spotted the “chutnefication” of English, the “chickenification” of the American pig, and the “drinkification” of snack foods.
I agree with Wollman that many neologisms are born out of a love of euphony and that their shelf life may depend upon it. I’ve heard “Spanglish,” “Swinglish,” and “Swenglish,” but I’ve near heard “Swahilish,” although many Swahili speakers liberally mix Swahili with English—perhaps because it doesn’t slip as lightly off the tongue as the other three.
One thing is certain. More new English words are coined every minute. A good candidate for one of the best new words of 2011 recently appeared in the “WorldWise” section of The Chronicle of Higher Education:
In a recent, much-cited article in The Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway has noted the increasing prominence of what she calls “worlidays,” holidays where the participants mix in a little work and are still always on. She notes how these kinds of holiday can still be relaxing. There is not an either work or relaxation moment but a change of scene may make both work and relaxation more positive.
As most of my holidays include at least a few hours of work, I’m glad to know that someone out there has invented a word that puts a more positive spin on what I’ve always referred to as “working holidays” or “working vacations.”