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Giving Life to Language: How New Words Are Created

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Not yet halfway through the year and already Webster’s has added a 1,000 new words to their dictionary. Though the old man Noah Webster himself might have been stymied by words like humblebrag, photobomb and listicle, the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster are encouraging the unstoppable language revolution. It’s true that none of these words are necessarily new for 2017, as most have been around, some for a surprising long while, but their status has now been upgraded from just slang to the status of definable words by being included in one of the great tomes of language.

Language is a living thing, always changing and ever-expanding, and so the vessels that contain and define it must be ever-changing as well. All dictionaries are updated yearly, but how do the men and women that work together in this semi-official language-governing body decide which words to bring into the fold and which to shun for another year? The answer?: stick with us and we’ll explain.

Becoming a word

There are three criteria for entry into the hallowed pages of the dictionary.

First is widespread usage. This means that the word should be seen in a wide range of publications. For instance, if a word shows up in Thrasher and also the Wall Street Journal, that would be considered expansive coverage. It should also be in widespread use geographically across the English-speaking world, perhaps being understood simultaneously in California, Durban, South Africa, and Accra, Ghana would be a high qualification. This geographic spreading has sped up by an unknowable factor since the ubiquitous spread of the internet, so what would have once taken decades in the past may now happen during a single news cycle.

Secondly, the word must achieve sustained usage. This is a little ambivalent because what it means in the world of lexicology is not just that it has some history, but that it has a record in both spoken and written language. Again, with the advent of social media, that process has been sped up considerably. Consider that words were once tracked for 20 or 30 years to make sure they had settled into the language while the word F-bomb entered into the dictionary five years ago already.

The third, and perhaps most ambivalent criterion, is ‘meaningful use’. Meaningful how? Meaningful to whom? The best way to define this it seems is that the new word’s meaning fills a hole in the language that was once missing. In essence, this new word’s value allows for a person to communicate that much more effectively. Cankle, for example, or calf + ankle, while amusing, can fall into this category.

So how does these brave lexicographers decide what is meaningful and what isn’t? They hunt the word down in the wild and track its usage. Using databases like lexis nexis they try and pinpoint a new term’s first usage and understand whether that usage remains consistent in both spoken and written use for the word to become definable.

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A case study

Let’s go back to F-bomb to see how this works. The genesis of the word F-Bomb, believe it or not, was a swearing baseball player. Normally a cursing athlete is nothing to write about, but in this case the culprit was the notoriously clean-mouthed New York Met Gary Carter who described himself as using the ‘F-bomb’ against a belligerent umpire in a 1989 article that ran in News Day. Now this easy and fun way to relate one of the most-used, yet still highly-censored words in the English language took off in the news media first and was then picked up by popular culture where it has lasted and spread wide across the globe.

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Something that is flexible not only expands but shrinks as well. Though dictionaries generally add more words than they expel, they do shed those whose meanings and usage have been made obsolete or just generally forgotten. Here are nine words that were ejected from the Merriam-Webster last year.

  1.  frutescent (adj.): having or approaching the appearance or habit of a shrub; shrubby.
  1. hodad (n.): a word from the era of The Beach Boys meaning a non-surfer who frequents surfing beaches and pretends to be a surfer.
  1. nephoscope (n.): an instrument for observing the direction of motion and velocity of clouds.
  1. Ostmark (n.): unit of currency in the former East Germany.
  1. snollygoster (n.):  a shrewd, unprincipled person. President Harry S. Truman loved this word and he sometimes used it to refer to members of the Republican Party.
  1. sternforemost (adv.): with the stern in advance: backward; old nautical term.
  1. stylopodium (n.): a disk-shaped or conical swelling or expansion at the base of the style in plants of the family Umbelliferae.
  1. tattletale gray (n): a grayish white: off-white. The term was popularized by an old ad campaign for the laundry detergent Fels-Naptha in the 1930s.
  1. Vitamin G (n.): an outdated term for what is now known as riboflavin, which is a type of B vitamin that helps the body grow, produce red blood cells and release energy from carbohydrates.

In conclusion…

…There is a lot to be said about words, etymology, and their constant-changing presence in the modern English language. As over-talked about as it is, ‘on fleek’ was borne out of a 7-second vine and beyond sweeping the slang world by storm, it very well could one day blossom into something more worldly than ever imagined. Language is exciting, unpredictable, engaging, meaningful, and determinant. What will come next?