Cutesy neologisms needle me, sometimes

English is an amazing language. It has a vocabulary of over a million words, and counting.

Wright_Books2It got there by leeching many of them off other languages – Latin, Anglo Saxon (which produced some of my favourite words, except I don’t use them a lot on this blog), French, German, Scandinavian and so on. Basically, everybody who ever invaded the British Isles had a hand in the creation of English.

A fair number of words also emerged from English itself – neologisms, coined for specific purposes. One of the earliest flurries of word-making came in the sixteenth century, when two things happened that demanded new words. One was William Tyndale’s project to translate the Bible into English. The other was William Shakespeare’s need to entertain Globe-goers. Both produced a flood of new words, most of which we know and love today.

To work – as in, to be picked up generally – a neologism also has to gain social traction. That was how Tyndale and Shakespeare’s creativity took hold in the general language.

The driver of late has been the march of technology and need to have words to describe stuff that’s routinely used in everyday life. That’s been going on for decades. Words like ‘laser’ and ‘radar’ are merely recent examples, there’s also ‘locomotive’, ‘car’, ‘typewriter’ and so forth. Even the way these neologisms emerges had changed: earlier ones co-opted words and put them together (‘locomotion’, ‘motor carriage’). More recent ones, often, have been acronyms: ‘radio detection and ranging’, ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’, and so on. We’ve also had words that re-purpose older terms, such as ‘computer’, which in the older days referred to a person who did calculations – ‘computed’ things.

All have been joyously picked up by English speakers – and, of course, by a lot of non-English speakers who’ve taken terms such as ‘computer’ into conversational German and so forth. (I once asked the Dutch half of my family what the Netherlands for ‘download’ was. It’s – er – ‘download’). Only the French seem to be hold-outs here, with l’ordinateur and a funny keyboard layout.

It’s possibly the lack of social traction that makes some of the neologisms I see, on occasion, not so much ‘innovative’ as ‘annoying’. There’s a historian, here in New Zealand, who persistently coins them as metaphors – ‘woodberg’ is one I recall, relating to the scale of New Zealand’s historical timber exports. Ouch.

I guess the fact is that neologisms have their place. Do you find neologisms annoying? Or make up words if you need them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


5 thoughts on “Cutesy neologisms needle me, sometimes

  1. Yeah, there’s a few I don’t care for. I think most of it is in pronunciation. Things like saying “aks” instead of “ask.” As in, “Lemme aks you a question.” This droves me bonkers. What’s so hard about saying “ask?” It’s replacement doesn’t improve anything in any way. Another one is when people actually speak “LOL.” Seriously? That’s a texting convention not a speaking one. That really bugs me. The last is “graphical.” When I grew up it was “graphic art” or a “graphic” describing production rates. Now folks seem to have replaced “graphic” entirely and in all circumstances with “graphical.” Argh!

    So, no mega short-story this week?

    1. I agree! One of the ones that also gets me has been the use of ‘invite’ as a noun. When I was growing up, it was a verb…

      I’m basically offline until mid next week – I haven’t had time to respond to comments, read blogs or any of the usual stuff. Normal blogging, contests etc, resume soon.

  2. Well, Matthew – thank you. You have just explained why I spend hours, literally, at There are so many words that I cannot have my characters speak in the first century AD.
    Some have a root going back to early Roman – but oh dear, words have been a challenge.

    I first encounted it in book 1, Hold the Faith. A word I had used was not ‘invented’ until the 18th century, and referred to something that would not have been understood LOL

    Writing that far back keeps my ‘little grey cells’ working. 🙂

    Thanks for the post, again, most enjoyable.

  3. Words in the English language and their origins fascinate me, I have travelled a lot and have a crude knowledge of Malay, Tagalog, Arabic, some Chinese and Hindi and Portuguese, and it never fails to amaze me at how many words that many take for granted as English, actually have origins in England’s colonial past. Avata, Bangle, Bungalow, chit, Juggernaugt, loot, Shampoo, Thug and Verandah all have origins in the Sub continent, so before the rise of the East India Company the English dictionary must have been a very small book and English a bland language.

    Even Deco which our favourite town uses to good effect if from the Hindi Dekko – meaning look at or study something.

  4. While this may not be exactly what you’re talking about, it was funny for our family. When my middle son was only 3, he was forever getting into trouble. I don’t know how many times a day I had to tell him to stop doing something and behave. Apparently, he understood ‘behave’ to be two words and license to do whatever he wanted. After one particularly rough day, when I must have yelled at him ten times already, he stopped and pouted. With his head still down he said, “I was too being have.” That was when I realized he had no idea what I meant. We hugged and had a discussion. He was better after that. But it taught me a valuable lesson that I carried over into my nursing career, making sure my patients understood words that I was used or the doctor had used to explain things to them.

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