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