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How do we make new words?

February 23, 2009

Hello again,

Learners sometimes groan under the sheer weight of English vocabulary. I was both amused and sympathetic when one students told me of his horror at the fact that new words were constantly being added to the language. Why, he wondered,...

...did we want more words when we already have so many to mean roughly the same thing. It seems, I must agree, like offering Eskimos more words for snow.

Yet, because languages are organic, they are constantly growing new offshoots. Sometimes we need words for genuinely new phenomena and sometimes because the existing ones gather nuances that we wish to shed. New words can often be associated with cohesive groups that use their own idiolect arising from shared ideas. Humour often contributes new words: I am particularly fond of “baggravation” coined by those frustrated by the mishandling of bags by airlines. In many cases new words are ephemeral. I don’t know of anybody who uses the verb “to handbag” anymore, although it had its brief appearance during the days of Mrs Thatcher.

What about the processes by which new words are conceived and brought to life? Often new words are created by well-worn processes: conversion from one part of speech to another (as in to handbag). Have you noticed the recent spate of conversions of verb to noun, as in “ a big ask” “ a good listen”?

Blending words is a common process, as in “baggravation.” “affluenza”, “emoticon”, “agroterrorism”, “netiquette.”

Affixation is another process that allows us use an existing root and come up with a new version. Perhaps the best example of over affixation is “disestablishmentarianism”. Michael Quinlon (http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/unpaired.htm) has pointed out how this process often leaves us with negative words whose positive root has long been defunct: disgruntled, unkempt, unruly, ungainly. This can pose something of a pitfall for students, who may reasonably expect to find “gruntled” etc. in use.

Situations spark off new words that may live only as long as the situation. The current world economic woes have give rise to “credit crunch” and “staycation”, two blends that I hope will not survive the economic recovery.

Let me know if you have any favourite new words.

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  1. Drew Ward Says:

    I notice you've mentioned unkempt as a word lacking its original root. I've seen this mentioned several times in recent months. I'd like to point out though that at least in American English and South African English kempt and its various expressions such as well kempt, poorly kempt, etc are all quite alive and in common everyday use.

    Otherwise...fun article

  1. anthony innerd Says:

    hi brenda
    I want to teach english here in Sweden. I have a CELTA but have just been informed now that to teach in European government schools, one needs an additon to CELTA which will extend the 1 month course i completed in 2007. I have been trying to learn Swedish from a Book with little practice and find it hard to learn this way. I have an opportunity to enquire about doing a 1 term pedagogy course that will link with my CELTA but unsure when and where but is necessary to move on.
    In the meantime, perhaps I have the opportunity to teach converstional english for say a small group but it cannot be a realistic earner. When I left UK, my training after CELTA company were able to purchase some wonderful colour wall charts on English Tenses, that were ideal to help teach english but I have no success finding one. Do you think there is other resources than OUP, which does not have these charts. I would appreciate any advice that will help me back to teaching english after nearly 15 months lay-off.
    I hope you are that link.

    mamy thanks
    anthony in southern lappland

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Anthony, have a look at this URL:http://pogol.net/index.php?p=22#more-22

    I hope it helps.

  1. Chris Lotinga Says:

    When my sister was a toddler, I asked her if she liked ice cream. "Mmmm, it's my flavourite!" was her response. So that's always been my 'favourite' made up word :)

  1. michael Says:

    well kempt! you know, i hate american english and ban it from all my classes. its such a stupid word, why not just use kept,

    also, fall instead of autumn is stupid, things fall because of gravity. its not a season.

    anyway, my favourite made up word is magnitastic, i made it up last week, american english is not magnitastic !!!

  1. Katie Says:


    I enjoy the new word that my 13-year-old nephew is using: pwned. The word "owned" had been used before this evolution to mean "dominated"; for example, in sports: if you won the game you could say that you 'owned' the other team. However, in this technological era, my nephew's generation uses computers for a large amount of its communication. Thus, when they were trying to type 'owned', they would often type 'pwned' because of how near the 'p' is to the 'o' on the keyboard. And so a new slang word was born, and I have heard it used in speech time and time again. It's interesting how technology affects our oral speech. Another example: to 'google' something (a favorite of mine!)


  1. richard breed Says:

    HI! My fave new word which is well recieved, is:


    Making both

    You do a great job. My way of teaching EFL is to focus on "American conversational" language, so in a business setting the new speaker of English appears & understands the way Americans are continually reinventing ways to communicate ideas and concepts.

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