Language is wonderfully expansive and fluid—constantly mutating and forever evolving to better represent our lives and culture—and yet frequently inadequate. There are countless concepts, feelings, and situations, not to mention emerging technologies and gadgets, that don’t have a particular word to describe them. So, as proprietary speakers of a language, we have the right to invent what currently does not exist. “Everybody who speaks English decides together what’s a word and what’s not a word,” said the lexicographer Erin McKean in her 2014 TED Talk. “Every language is just a group of people who agree to understand each other.” If we all agree that a “selfie” is a photo one takes of oneself, then that’s exactly what it is (doesn't mean we have to like it!).
“You should make words because every word is a chance to express your idea and get your meaning across," added McKean. "And new words grab people’s attention.” She even offered up her own handy guide to neologizing:
As a word lover, a primer on making up new ones from a professional is much appreciated (especially since pulling a full-on Frindle is hard!). I’ve listed out McKean’s recommendations below and added a few of my own (with help from linguist Alan Timberlake, who teaches a course on language history at Columbia University). Now, whenever you think, "There should be a word for that!," you'll have no excuse not to create one.
- Selfie (self portrait => selfie): “Let’s take a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower!”
- Insta (Instagram => Insta): “My Insta is mostly selfies from France."
Simple truncation is the shortening of long words, sometimes accompanied by the addition of a diminutive. It's totally fab!
- lol (pronounced phonetically): “I lolled at your YouTube video!"
- gonna (from “going to”): “I’m gonna eat later.”
When invented words lose their essence of madeupedness, they're sometimes used in a way that is slightly different than originally intended. For example, the Internet abbreviation for the phrase “Laugh Out Loud” was first pronounced L-O-L (el oh el) and was used almost exclusively as a stand-alone exclamation. LOL would be its own message, indicating that the speaker was literally Laughing Out Loud. Over time, however, LOL's semantic meaning changed (as did its capitalization), shedding its implication of a vocal guffaw in favor of mild amusement. It also grammaticalized into a different part of speech: lol can now be used as a verb with a full conjugation, as in “I was lolling” or “I lolled.”
Gonna developed from “going to,” and now exists as its own word with its own rules of usage. Gonna represents intention, but, though it comes from “going to,” cannot imply movement. You can say “I’m going to the store,” but not “I’m gonna the store.” Thus gonna is used in a way that is different from its phrasal ancestor.
- chocoholic: “She’s a total chocoholic; she eats like 10 Hershey bars a day!”
- Bridgegate: “lol how is Chris Christie going to run for president after Bridgegate?!”
The “-holic” and “-gate” suffixes, now meaning “addicted to” and “scandal,” respectively, both developed from a part of a word that was excised and then attached to others. “-ic” was added to “alcohol” to yield the meaning “pertaining to alcohol.” Alcoholic eventually came to mean “person addicted to/dependent on alcohol.” This “-holic” suffix was then affixed to many other words with the “addicted to” meaning, as in "shopaholic." Similarly, the “-gate” in Watergate came to represent scandal, such as the fallout over politically motivated lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey. This process sometimes hinges on synecdoche: the entire meaning of the Watergate scandal must be imbedded in “-gate.”
- duckface: “Why do people think that doing duckface in selfies looks good?”
- manspreading: “I can’t sit on the subway because that dude is manspreading :(”
In general, compounding is a mashup of two words (in the case of longshoreman, there are three!), like “mash” + “up” to make “mashup.”
- brunch (breakfast + lunch): “It’s 11 am on a Sunday; let’s go get brunch!”
- drunch (drunk + brunch): “It’s 11 am on a Sunday and I want to simultaneously drink and eat; let’s go get drunch!”
- listicle (list + article): “I read such a great listicle on Slate about making up new words!"
Blending is the combination and mixture of two words to yield a new one. These are sometimes referred to as portmanteaus.
- edit (from the noun “editor”)
- burgle (from the noun "burglary")
- babysit (from the noun “babysitter”)
This is the process by which new words are formed from existing ones by chopping off affixes like -er. Most commonly, a noun is shortened to yield an action verb, like in the examples above, however adjectives are fruitful source material for backformations as well (snark from snarky).
Borrowing from other languages
- ninja (Japanese)
- kumquat (Chinese)
- gauche (a personal favorite) (French)
Borrowed words may not technically be new, but they're new to us, and those that are transliterated into English are new to the Latin alphabet.
- friend (noun to verb): “Hey, can you friend me?”
- text (noun to verb): “I hate Facebook; why don't you just text me?”
- like (verb to noun): “Look how many likes my Insta has!”
Why should a noun stay a noun? Verbify it!
- tbt (Throw Back Thursday): “I always post a baby picture as my tbt”
- OOTD (Outfit of the Day): “Just posted an OOTD selfie”
- lmao (Laughing My Ass Off): “omg that’s so so funny lmao”
The first letters of the words in a phrase are used to make the acronym, many of which are employed more in text-speak than spoken English. By the way, "acronym" is used colloquially for both acronyms (which can be pronounced as words, like NASA and scuba) and initialisms (which are sounded out letter by letter, like OMG and OOTD), which sends some quibblers into conniptions. smh