MY YEAR OF NEW WORDS, part 1

\We love words. Some are short and sharp, like “cut” or “kick.” Some of are confusing, like “citation” (is it good or bad?) and “ogle” (is it AHgle or OHgle or UHgle). Some roll smiling off our tongues, like “Kalamazoo” or “googleganger”. And we love to make up words, as alliterative news catchphrases (“Superstorm Sandy)”, as advertising slogans [“coughsequences” (Robitussen), “millionize” (L’Oreal), “Februany” (Subway), “threemendous” (McDonald’s), DQrazy (Dairy Queen), “biggerer” (the Oregon lottery)], and as political commentary (from “Reaganomics” to “Clintonomics” to “Obamacare” and “Mittmentum”). Some television shows even make a practice of coining words. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, as my colleague Michael Adams has documented, has contributed “researchy, rampagey, freaksome, sighage”, and more.

Dictionaries, professional societies, and universities get in on the game as well, especially during the slow year-end news cycles. Merriam Webster and Oxford Dictionaries both promote a word of the year. Lake Superior State University offers its list of Words that Should be Banished…”.

The American Dialect Society has an annual Word of the Year vote—a raucous open meeting—with hotly contested votes in a number of categories: “Most Useful, Most Creative, Most Unnecessary, Most Outrageous, Most Euphemistic, Most Likely To Succeed, Least Likely To Succeed”. And, not to be outdone, the American Name Society votes on a Name of the Year as well and the “Trade Name of the Year, Place Name of the Year, Personal Name of the Year,” and “Fictional Name of the Year”.

Some wordwork is year round. Erin McKean’s Wordnik is an online dictionary/thesaurus site that includes meanings: context of the word, including usage and even photos and also allows users to add their own meaning and context. The Urban Dictionary, founded in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, allows users to define words and add citations. Now with (volunteer) editors, it’s becoming a much more serious contender. If the Urban Dictionary is the OED of new words (and I’m not saying it is), then comedian Rich Hall is the Samuel Johnson. He popularized Sniglets on the 1980s HBO Not Necessarily the News, offering a monthly on words that don’t appear in the dictionary, but should. The “New York Times Magazine” has taken over for Not Necessarily the News with Lizzie Skurnik’s “That Should be a Word” feature.

In terms of tracking actual new words, Paul McFedries’ WordSpy fills in some new gaps as does “Wired” magazine’s Jargon Watch. The American Speech Among the New Words column tracks new words each quarterly issue, with a bit of a time lag for scholarly steeping. And of course dictionaries are at it all the time. It’s their job. The online Oxford English Dictionary adds thousands of words each year. Writers invent and use new words—from Chaucer’s use of French words to Shakespeare’s and Twain’s neology to Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess to modern examples like M. K. Anderson’s “meg null” and “unit” or J. K. Rowling’s “muggles” and “disapparitions”.

How does a word get in the dictionary, you ask? According to Merriam-Webster, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning. Sarah Ogilvie reports on the OED practice:

    We hesitated to state an official policy for new words, but usually a word only got admitted if it appeared in written texts more than five times over five years, and preferably in a variety of sources (i.e. not just in newspapers but also in magazines and books).

Why should famous writers and dictionaries have all the fun? In the waning months of 2011, I decided to tweet a new word every day.

Some were words suggested to me by friends, from young children to retirees (a list of those deserving credit appears at the end). Many words I made up. On occasion I would try to think of new words as a went to sleep, like counting sheep, and other times I sat in meetings or presentations pretending to take notes but really brainstorming words. Sometimes I even jotted down an idea on a napkin while driving. The new words were curated too. I checked them on Google to be sure they weren’t already in the Urban or Webster’s dictionaries.

But why would I commit to tweeting 366 new words (yes, it was a leap year)? I had three reasons.
The first was just to have some fun. I recently came across a description of Groucho Marx by publisher Bennett Cerf. Cerf said that Groucho … “doesn’t look at words the way the rest of us do. He looks at them upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more. Groucho doesn’t look for double meanings. He looks for quadruple meanings.”

I’m no Groucho Marx, but I appreciate wordplay and I’ve tried to approach non-words the same way: upside-down and backwards with quadruple meanings. I thought the best words to make up would be ones that had phonetic or visual joke… like “virony” (veiled irony expressed by females about or toward males)? Is it VIE-roni (like virtual + irony) or VIR-ony (from virile + irony). Or it is a “polyphone “(a word that can be pronounced in more than one way).

Sometimes though, the words tricked me. I’ve always been amused at the usage of “akimbo” to mean “askew” (as in “with arms and legs akimbo”). But “akimbo” means “with arms on the hips” so “legs akimbo” seems painfully wrong. I wanted a word that means any human body position in which the hands are not on the hips with elbows pointed outward. I imagined someone reading “akimbo” as “a + kimbo” like “amoral”, “atopic”, or “atypical”. But “kimbo” is already a word—and a name. So I went with “anakimbo”, using the prefix “ana-” which can mean “without.”

Well, having this kind of fun would be enough for me, but if I was going to justify this to my relatives, colleagues, and bosses, I needed a more academic reason. So you should think of it as a year-long opportunity to talk about words and promote some of the concepts of word formation. When I introduce the concept of word creation in classes, we talk about all the various ways that new words and meanings come about. Now I can illustrate these concepts with novel examples along with textbook ones. The dozenish essays that follow talk about the various types of word formation and meaning creation, from blending in January, to clipping in February to fixation, pre- and suf-, in March and April to verbing nouns in May, eponyms in July, and – well, just read on.

There’s a third reason too, and I’ll get back to that at the end.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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