MED Magazine - Issue 55 - November 2009

Feature
Survival of the fittest new words and longevity

by Kerry Maxwell

After almost seven years of collecting and examining new words, I thought it might be interesting to take a step back and see which expressions have weathered the passage of time and ‘made it’ as vocabulary that most English speakers would recognise. After all, as language users we can be rather fickle in our relationship with new words, getting excited about them when they first appear, then dropping them without a second thought when all the fuss dies down. On the other hand, there are at least a few neologisms that we give a permanent home in our mental lexicon, making them fully-functioning residents rather than mere temporary lodgers.

In particular, I thought it would be interesting to explore, in linguistic terms, which types of expressions have hung on in there - are new senses of established words more enduring than blends? Are acronyms any less ephemeral than other forms of abbreviation? In other words, is there any kind of correlation between longevity and the process of word formation?

Thinking outside the book

Before I begin, I should say that my evaluation is not restricted to considering which words have made it into the dictionary. It often takes several years for a word to enter the printed record, and as a fully paid-up descriptivist, I believe this is an artificial benchmark. The development of the English lexicon is about language in use, not about the point at which an editor makes a decision to include an item in a publication. I would argue that, in the early 21st century, courtesy of the World Wide Web, there’s been a raised awareness of the development of language and a not-insignificant increase in the rate of lexical expansion. The reasons are simple – the Internet constitutes both a massive repository of (written and spoken) language and the means of spreading it at breakneck speed. In evaluating which words have become genuine players therefore, I think we need to look outside the constraints of an arbitrary A-Z list.

Staying the course

The first thing I’m pleased to say is that, on looking at the words I’ve been collecting since 2002 (see Word of the Week, New Word of the Month and BuzzWord), I’m confident that, from each conventional ‘category’ of word formation (compounding, abbreviation, blend etc), I can find at least one example which would be an accepted, recognizable word for an English speaker today.1 To back this up, I did some informal research with speakers across a range of ages, genders and backgrounds. Based on the results, here’s a sample of neologisms – listed according to the processes that formed them – which seem to be here to stay, in the sense that they are generally recognised, understood and used:

Compound (two or more words used together to identify a new concept)
speed dating, walking bus

Blend (a combination of word parts, or word parts and whole words)
podcast

Abbreviation
WiFi

Acronym (an abbreviation that forms a word)
BOGOF

Existing word, new use
wireless (adjective)

Affixation (using established prefixes and suffixes to create new meanings)
regift(-ing)

proper noun (new word based on a name or brand name)
google (verb)

Borrowing (adopting a word from another language)
sudoku, tsunami

The question, then, is: among the types of word formation exemplified above, is there one that stands out as being the biggest source of enduring additions to our vocabulary?

After reviewing the 400 or so new expressions I’ve looked at since 2002, the answer is, I’m afraid, predictable and rather unexciting. The process of compounding seems to be the most reliable in delivering new expressions which firmly establish themselves. It’s easy to see why – compounding produces a larger proportion of neologisms in the first place, simply because it’s the most straightforward of all the ways to create a new term. If you’re struggling to describe something, what could be easier than to simply take two words – whose form, meaning and pronunciation are already familiar to language users – and shove them together? And therein lies an important point: the most successful coinages are usually those that link into existing features of English, allowing people to understand, write and pronounce them immediately.

A blend, though also taking inspiration from existing forms, takes one step longer to interpret than a compound. If we’re to understand a blend’s meaning, we need to work out what the underlying words were, and this may be open to interpretation (e.g. podcast: is that from forecast or broadcast; and could pod be the thing that peas grow in?).

That said, however, my impression is that people seem to get far more excited by blends, which are altogether more sexy examples of word creation. There’s something fun about wrapping your tongue around a new hybrid of words, and taking a few seconds to work out where it might have come from. This means that blends often get intense, but brief periods of exposure, stirring up a flurry of interest but, like a passing fad, disappearing off the scene relatively quickly.

So, if blends are the hare, compounds are the tortoise, slowly but surely plodding their way into mainstream usage, and usually winning the longevity prize. Going back to expressions I researched in 2003, my guess is that today, many people would still recognise, and possibly use, the compounds senior moment or, stealth tax but are far less likely to be familiar with the blends bustitution or trolleyology. Though they could probably have a guess at what the latter two expressions mean, they’d be much less likely to use them than the first two.

Useful or user-friendly?

After a brief exploration, we’ve discovered that compounding seems to be the biggest source of enduring neologisms. On the flip side, though, there are plenty of examples of compounds that are relatively short-lived; remember the awareness band of 2005, now seldom seen? In contrast, seemingly more opaque terms from around the same time have stayed the course, like wiki, and WAG. So it seems that, though longevity might be influenced by processes of word formation, there are other factors at play too.

The overriding factor is, of course, usefulness. Words stay in our language only if they represent concepts which continue to exist over the passage of time. If concepts become less significant, we use the related words less and less until, like the concept itself, the word dies out. Some examples from the last couple of decades include chunnel (pretty much obsolete since the Channel Tunnel became a reality) and dial-up (dwindling in usage now that broadband has become the norm). In this sense, there’s a strong connection between longevity and technology. If a particular technology stands still, related terms continue to be used; if it changes and develops, new words emerge and others are likely to disappear. But technology is not the only domain where this kind of natural wastage and development of language occurs; the same principles apply to other areas too, meaning that any topic which continues to be relevant in society is likely to sustain a developing vocabulary. It’s no coincidence, then, that expressions like bird flu, stealth tax and greenwash, are still going strong, since they relate to key areas of concern in the 21st century – health, finance, and the environment.

Psycholinguist Steven Pinker takes this argument one step further, claiming that as well as being useful, the more enduring coinages usually refer to more generic, stable concepts – they ‘name’ ideas and objects which aren’t likely to change in the short term. This may explain why podcast, despite being a clever blend, has been so successful – it quite simply fills a gap in the lexicon for ‘downloadable broadcast’. Pinker also argues that words which try to act as a commentary on a concept, to express an opinion about it by having some intrinsic pejorative or positive ‘feel’, usually have a short shelf life. Such expressions work well in the popular media but quickly fizzle out. An example from my own research is the blend chugger – a person who stands in public places to get people to sign up to charity donations. Chugger first appeared in 2002, but it never really caught on, and the underlying words might be a clue to its pejorative overtones: charity and mugger.

Another way a word can increase its usefulness, and therefore its chances of survival, is by being able to ‘procreate’. Take the verb google for example. Though representing one of the most unconventional processes of word formation, being a shiny new word (based on a proper noun), it ticks all the right ‘usefulness’ boxes, filling a lexical gap for the concept of ‘using an Internet search engine to look for information’. It also, however, has the advantage of being easily manipulated to produce other useful words. So from google (verb), we get googler (noun), googleable (adjective), ungoogleable (adjective / noun) and googleability (noun). Potential for productivity can sometimes act as a catalyst to recognition and be key to a longer life. This presumably also explains why new affixes might outlive the words on which they first or formerly appeared. The suffix -gate, for example – used to form a noun or adjective denoting some kind of scandal – is still alive and well, even though Camillagate (or, take your pick: Cheriegate, Monicagate, Svengate) is long gone.

There’s one further factor influencing longevity that we should mention: a phenomenon I like to refer to as user-friendliness. It’s obvious really, but words are far more likely to stay in the public consciousness if people find them easy to pronounce, read and spell. There’s a word I investigated in 2003 which, though denoting a simple concept familiar to all of us, i.e. ‘being in a bad mood, especially in the morning’, was doomed from the outset. It was never going to happen, people were never going to start saying: ‘Don’t talk to him until at least an hour after he gets up, it’s matutolypea.’ Ma-tu-toe… what!? Need I say more? However, a word like blog, for example, represents the other extreme. Not only does it have the advantage of being productive (consider blogger, moblog, blogosphere, audioblog), it’s also right up there with cat and dog as being totally phonetic and one of the simplest words in the English language to say and spell.

(What is?) the secret of success

So there we have it – a brief of exploration of what factors might influence the longevity of a new word. A key ingredient seems to be simplicity. The easier it is to immediately recognise the intended meaning of a new expression, or the more straightforward it is to pronounce and spell, the more likely people are to embrace it, and therefore the more established it becomes. But the real golden ticket for survival is usefulness – we just don’t bother hanging on to new words if their raison d'être disappears.

That said, the truth is that whether a new word is straightforward or obscure, there is no definitive way to predict whether it will survive, or how long it will last. Random things happen. Take the abbreviation H5N1 for example, which became lodged in public consciousness in 2006 as an alternative to bird flu, despite being a bit of a mouthful in connected speech and offering the average person absolutely no clue as to its meaning. And what about our persistent use of www (‘double-u, double-u, double-u’) as opposed to world wide web, even though the latter is transparent, quicker to pronounce and sounds far less clumsy?

Notes
For a detailed description of word formation processes, see this MED Magazine article.


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's BuzzWord articles on the Macmillan Online Dictionary site. Kerry is also teaming up with author Tim Bowen to produce a series of lesson plans for onestopenglish.com.