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"Microstyle": How to Coin a Word

Christopher Johnson, a branding expert who runs the website The Name Inspector, has a new book out called Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little about how contemporary message-makers need to become "verbal miniaturists." In this excerpt, Johnson explains how "neologisms can be among the most powerful of micromessages."

In 2007, at PodCamp Pittsburgh 2, a social media "unconference," some geeks were sitting around discussing web technology— and going off on tangents. According to Andy Quayle, one of the participants, "We were talking about different meats and international types of bacon and were receiving messages on our mobile devices and eventually the two mixed." A new word was born: bacn, which the group defined as 'email you want—but not right now.' Bacn refers to the email we sign up to receive— notifications from Facebook, beta announcements from startups, etc.—and never get around to reading. Bacn is spam's tastier cousin.

Being geeks, these neologists—that is, creators of neologisms, or new words—made a website to promote their word and asked bloggers to write about it. Their promotional efforts paid off. Bacn became a story. Not everyone liked the new word. Some commenters on the Bacn website pointed out that bacon, the food, is simply too delicious to serve as a good metaphor for email you never get around to reading. But the story of Bacn spread. It was covered by CNET, InformationWeek, New Scientist magazine, National Public Radio, Wired magazine, and even People magazine.

Bacn was coined to attract attention, communicate instantly, and be remembered and repeated. It worked. Notice the big story wasn't that people sign up to receive email and then don't read it. The story was that someone had come up with a funny, catchy name for the common phenomenon that makes us see it in an interesting light. Neologisms can be among the most powerful of micromessages.

Coined words come in many varieties. There are political epithets like Defeatocrat; terms for new technologies and cultural phenomena like podcast, greenwash, and of course bacn; proprietary names for companies and products, such as Skype, Technorati, Wii, and more.

Almost all new words, from tech company names to political insults, result from a handful of processes familiar to linguists. Most of these processes are green: they reuse or recycle existing words. Here are seven common ways to build a new word:

  1. Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
  2. Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
  3. Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
  4. Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
  5. Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
  6. Make an analogy or play on words (Farecast, podcast)
  7. Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)

Making up a new word doesn't have to mean creating a new sound; it can also mean putting an existing sound to new use.

People often don't think of these as neologisms, but the end result is essentially a new word. Remember, a word isn't just a sound or a handful of letters; what makes it interesting, what makes it a word, is that it has a meaning. When people use the word word, they sort of vacillate between meaning just the spoken and written form on the one hand, and the form plus the meaning on the other. For this reason, lexical semanticists—linguists who really take words seriously—don't even find the word word very useful. They use different terms when they're talking about the form alone and when they're talking about the form plus its meaning.

To put a special mark of ownership on a repurposed word, you can respell it. Respelling words serves some technical functions: as we saw in the last chapter, it makes them easier to trademark (as in Rice Krispies, Cheez Whiz, and Krazy Glue), it often creates a unique keyword to increase search engine visibility (as in Squidoo), and it sometimes makes it possible to acquire a meaningful ".com" domain (as in Topix, a localized news service). But respelling comes at a cost: you run the risk of seeming stupid or cheesy, or being confusing.

One of the best respelling techniques eliminates letters that aren't necessary for pronunciation. This approach achieves spelling economy, a desirable quality in a name. Flickr, for example, eliminates the e in the common -er ending. Eliminating letters that are not pronounced is a natural move, and one that children often do. At the end of his kindergarten year, my son Tobias unwittingly coined a Web 2.0 name when he described himself in a written report as "organisd."

Reusing a word—that is, giving it a new meaning—can change it forever in people's minds. Spam, once a brand name for a humble canned meat product, provides a perfect example. Recycling words—recombining them into new, larger units, sometimes breaking them down into their component pieces first—offers almost limitless possibilities for new coinages.

Coining words is an English literary tradition. William Shakespeare was an avid neologist. Some words that we still use today, and many others that we don't, made their first appearance in one of his plays. Shakespeare's interest in new words was poetic rather than informational, however; he strove less to name new ideas than to express old ones so that they fit the cadences of his characters' voices. The poetic use of neologism goes back even further in the history of our language. Old English epic poems such as Beowulf contained numerous kennings, fanciful compounds that replaced simple nouns with sometimes riddlelike descriptions. For example, a ship might be described as a "sea-steed," or blood as "slaughter-dew."

Words coined for special occasions without any concern for their permanence are called nonce words. Perhaps one of the best known coiners of English nonce words is Lewis Carroll. Many people have encountered his nonsensical poem "Jabberwocky," which appears in the book Through the Looking Glass and is filled with words of Carroll's invention:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice the meaning of part of this poem:

Well, "slithy" means "lithe and slimy." "Lithe" is the same as "active." You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed into one word.

He also explains that mimsy is a blend of miserable and flimsy. We now have other, less literary reasons to create new words.

They help us keep pace with the rapid rate of change in science, technology, business, and society. Neologism is such a salient feature of tech-obsessed American culture that there's a feature in Wired magazine devoted to it. The web makes tracking new words much easier than it was in the past. Several websites, such as Word Spy, are devoted solely to spotting and documenting neologisms.

Good neologisms sound fresh and perfectly natural at the same time. Naturalness results from respecting the normal cadences of speech and the sounds of the words used, as well as the meanings and grammatical functions of the component parts. Biznik, the name of a social network for independent businesspeople, is a perfect use of the Yiddish-derived suffix -nik, which attaches to nouns and describes people who have an affinity for what the noun names (beatnik, peacenik).

It's surprising how many new words are poorly constructed. The old IBM computer name Aptiva sounds odd if you think of it as consisting of the word apt and the suffix -ive with a Latinate vowel at the end. The -ive suffix attaches to verbs to make adjectives (creative from create, divisive from divide, etc.), but apt is already an adjective, so Aptiva just seems a little off.

Neologism is the ultimate in microstyle, because it involves poking around under the hood of words and tinkering with their internal structure. Even if you just stick two words together to make a compound, as in YouTube, you create a word-internal syllable boundary, which can be a sticking point in pronunciation. But what really calls for some finesse with verbal mechanics is the blend word, or portmanteau.

In a well-constructed portmanteau, two component words blend together seamlessly through a phonetic overlap or similarity. Consider the word vegangelical, a blend of evangelical and vegan. While vegan doesn't rhyme with the first two syllables of evangelical, it does have the same vowel sounds (when evangelical has a fully unemphasized and neutral second vowel). There's also a shared "v" sound, even though it occurs in a slightly different place. The result of combining these words is apt, both semantically and phonologically. Another interesting blend is adhocracy, a combination of ad hoc and democracy.

Bad blends try to squish words together in unnatural ways. Foodportunity, a networking event for food journalists, got its terrible name when someone stuck the whole word food into a spot previously occupied by a syllable consisting of only a single vowel. The huge phonetic difference between these two parts makes the neologism sound unnatural. Other bad blends fail to preserve the patterns of syllable emphasis of their component words. I like to call this phenomenon awkwordplay, a blend of awkward and wordplay, because that name actually demonstrates the phenomenon. If you try to pronounce the word awkward correctly, with no emphasis on the second syllable, then wordplay sounds all wrong. If you pronounce wordplay correctly, with emphasis on the first syllable, awkward gets all messed up. There's no nice, natural way to pronounce this word. A real example of awkwordplay is the name Teensurance, for a teen insurance policy from Safeco. The one-syllable word teen requires its own emphasis, but it replaces the unemphasized first syllable of insurance, resulting in a clunky name.

Perhaps the easiest way to create a new word is to simply stick two existing words together to make a compound. Political appellations that use this pattern include wingnuts (extreme right-wingers), moonbats (extreme lefties), and Islamofascists (which uses the classical compound-forming o to connect its two parts).

Update: Read a second excerpt from Johnson's book here.


Reprinted from Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson. Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Johnson. Used with permission of the publisher, Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.

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