Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Predicting New Words

How do words enter our lexicon? Which ones survive in our language? Which ones die? Forensic linguist Dr. Allan Metcalf has developed a method to predict the success or failure of a word that's almost foolproof. English professor and registrar of MacMurray College in Illinois, Allan is also the Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, which famously announces their annual Word of the Year. It is this exercise that served as the catalyst for Allan's investigations, which he explains in his book Predicting New Words. We spoke to him about his fascinating findings, and, of course, the Word of the Year:

VT: How are new words coined? How do they come about?

Allan: Words come about as we use the language and encounter situations that are not quite the same as before. We try to find the appropriate word for it - or maybe the malappropriate word -- and out it comes. I expect that practically every person who speaks uses an old word in a slightly new way or puts together a new word out of familiar parts at least once a day or so, because as many lexicographers and purists have noted, a language is not static until it is dead.

VT: So each of us is, in effect, continually inventing words?

Allan: People usually don't say, "I'm going to invent a new word today and I want everybody to start using it." Most of the new words and meanings that pop up spontaneously as we speak also disappear spontaneously because, whether it's a familiar word or even a combination of old things, people are used to the old meanings. But every now and then, along comes a new use of a word and it seems so natural that it doesn't even seem new. People begin using that old word in a new way. And as is often is the case, dictionary editors don't even notice these brand new words until maybe a decade or so after they've been put into use because they don't seem that obtrusive. I really enjoyed writing my book, "Predicting New Words," because there are so many notions about new words that just clearly are not true.

VT: Can you give an example?

Allan: The most obvious notion that is blatantly untrue is that a clever, funny, obtrusive, noticeable, or conscious coinage is going to enter into the vocabulary of the language permanently. Almost all such words fail totally.

VT: So what makes a word stick?

Allan: I found five factors, and for "Predicting New Words" I created the acronym FUDGE out of them, because I'm sort of fudging a little. The first one, "f," is for "frequency." How often is it used? Then there's "u" for "unobtrusiveness," which I was just talking about - a word shouldn't stick out, shouldn't appear to be new. "D" is for diversity of users and meanings. If a word is used exclusively by just a single group, like say, nuclear scientists and nobody else, it's not going to enter the general vocabulary even if the scientists themselves use it a lot. "G" is generating new forms and meanings. And "e," finally, is simply the endurance of the concept.

For example the term "Y2K" was extremely popular as the year 2000 approached. But I think it'd be hard to find anybody using Y2K nowadays. As objects or concepts become obsolete, the words that go with them will also disappear.

VT: Can you give us examples of other winners and losers? Words that people thought would stick but didn't, and words that maybe did stick and surprised you?

Allan: Well, let me talk about some of the ones that didn't surprise me.

VT: Sure.

Allan: You may have heard of a futurist named Faith Popcorn. Around 1990 she invented the term "cocooning." It referred to a trend where people stayed home more often, rather than going out, because things seemed so threatening outside. "Cocooning" caught on fairly well, and I think people still use it nowadays. This made Popcorn decide that she was going to be an inventor of lots of new words. Recently she even came out with a whole book of all-new words -- all of which did not succeed because they're all too clever. [With Adam Hanft: Dictionary of the Future, 2001] For example, she coined the word "atmosFear." (Yes, the F is capitalized.) This is her term for nervousness about pollution and possible attacks on our air, water and food in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. To the best of my knowledge, nobody except Faith Popcorn has ever used this word.

Or to take one of the most famous word coiners of all times, a man you've mentioned on your website named Gelett Burgess (Please click here to read about him). Of his recently reprinted book of coined words -- an even 100 of them, from "Agowilt" to "Zobzib" -- exactly one ("blurb") has become part of the vocabulary, and that happens to be one he had invented a decade earlier. He also invented the figurative meaning of "bromide," but that's it. All of his other brilliant creations, even though they were brilliant, didn't succeed. And that's how it works today, especially if somebody comes up with a word and is proud of it.

I have an article here from February, 2006, about a guy named James Vanden Bosch who has run a one-man lexicographical campaign for 20 years. He wants to put the word "presticogitation" into circulation. It's a spin-off of the word "prestidigitation," which means sleight of hand. "Presticogitation" means, according to Vanden Bosch, rapid mental processing that commands compliance because of its speed and beauty. Vanden Bosch says, "Since the mid 1980's, I've been asking students to try to find room for it in their writing." And so on and so on. Well, guess what? Unless you're a student being commanded to use it by James Vanden Bosch or even if you admire it -- it is kind of clever -- a word like that is going to sink like a lead balloon.

We see this again and again. People come up with very clever words but they have just about zero chance of succeeding. Occasionally, though, a joke can give birth to a word -- but only after the joke itself is forgotten. Once it's been forgotten, the word has a better chance of succeeding.

VT: Can you give us an example?

Allan: I'll give you the most famous example: the word "OK," which began as an abbreviation for "all correct." Of course, it's a big joke that both "o" and "k" are incorrect as abbreviations for "all correct." And if it were not for some very unusual circumstances shortly after it was created in 1839, we would not have "OK." I'm working on a book about "OK" right now to detail its amazing development into the word we can't get along without today.

I'm quite sure that part of what made "OK" usable nowadays is forgetting that originally it was just a silly joke. In fact it was almost embarrassing for a literate person to say the word originally. The joke had to be forgotten in order for "OK" to be something that a literate person would use.

VT: Do words like "OK" become successful because they fill a need in the language?

Allan: Some people refer to this as "gaps in the language." My book has a whole chapter on the myth of gaps. Just because there is a gap, it doesn't mean that it will be filled. In my book I cite an article from about 50 years ago that pointed out the big gaps in the English language at that time. The interesting thing is that every one of those gaps is still a gap. That article, which was published in the New York Times in 1955, cited a number of examples. For instance, they talked about the need for a dignified substitute for "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." Those terms are fine for referring to people who are in their teens. But for people who are in their 50's or 60's, it's awkward to talk about them as boyfriend and girlfriend. But we still do not have a term for this. We also didn't have then - and we don't have now -- a word meaning "brothers" and "sisters" that doesn't specify gender. "Siblings" already exists, of course, but it seems very formal and awkward. Then there's the issue of the pronoun to mean "he or she," which has been focused on for years. There have been lots of suggestions but we still don't have an acceptable substitute. Compared with boyfriend or girlfriend, the pronoun situation is even more awkward because there isn't a nice neutral circumlocution.

VT: These days The New York Times uses the word "companion," but that sounds weird.

Allan: Yes, it reminds me of the Lone Ranger and his "faithful Indian companion," Tonto. So gaps in the language remain. You can notice them by comparing English with other languages that have words for things that we don't. The problem is that for a new word to stick, it has to be in the pattern of the old.

Another major gap that is difficult for trendsetters and writers is that we don't have a name for, or a term for, the first and second decades of the 21st century. You know, we had the 90's, the 80's, the 70's and the 60's. But even though we're aware that something is needed, we're nearly through the first decade and we still don't call it the "aughts" or the "zeroes" or the "nones." Somehow, we keep saying "the first decade of the 21st century." And it's going to continue to be awkward even into the second decade. We can talk about the "teens," but 11 and 12 are not part of the teens.

Once we get to the 20's, I can guarantee you we'll talk about "the 20's," "trends of the 20's," etc. And we'll have 80 years to talk comfortably about the following decades. Once again, though, since there is no word that fits the pattern, we're going to have problems talking about the first and second decade of the 22nd century. But that won't be my problem.

VT: Or mine. Let's turn to your work at the Dialect Society and its annual announcement of the "Word of the Year." When your group picks this word, do you see it as a word that's going to be around for a while?

Allan: I don't anymore. In fact, the reason I got interested in predicting new words was from my experience with the American Dialect Society's choice of words of the year. When we started doing it in 1990, I thought it was going to be new words of the year. But it turns out that most new words, if you look hard enough, are ones that are in fact just newly prominent or newly capturing our attention. You can actually find them existing on the margins of the language or in a special sector for a long time before. So we had to drop "new words of the year" and simply say "words of the year."

What has been really interesting is that some of the words that were especially prominent in one year were gone by the next. I thought this was strange. If a word is so noticeable and prominent, how come it's not going to stay with us? That's when I gradually started developing my "fudge" formula. My chief observation, again, is that it's these very words that catch our attention that are, generally, least likely to succeed. And the words that we don't even notice because they don't even seem new? Years later we find that they've entered the vocabulary when we weren't paying attention to them.

VT: It's completely counterintuitive.

Allan: Exactly. Yes.

VT: Do you have any predictions about the Word of the Year for 2007?

Allan: Most of the time it's very difficult to predict what it's going to be. Occasionally, there's a word or phrase that everybody is paying attention to. For example, at the end of 2000 everybody was talking about "chads," if you recall. But, of course, this is a word that came and went. Much more often there are a whole lot of possibilities. I'm always surprised by which ones are chosen. Let me check my notes for some of this year's possibilities. We have, for example, "to friend" somebody, which I believe is a Facebook thing?

VT: I think so.

Allan: The verb "to friend," as in "I'm going to friend you," or "make you a friend on Facebook." I think that might be something. And I also heard the term, "previvor," which is someone who is a survivor of something, but who takes preventive actions to become a survivor. That one was new to me. It may be a little too clever, though. Frankly, when I notice a word, I'm immediately suspicious of it. But we will undoubtedly come up with something.

The Words of the Year are listed on our website, but you might be interested to know that last year's was the term, "to be plutoed" -- which I think has already disappeared from use. You may remember what happened to Pluto last year. It was downsized from a planet to something else. And so to be downsized is "to be plutoed." For the year 2005, we chose "truthiness," from the Colbert Report. That one got us a lot of publicity. For '04, we chose "red state," "blue state" and "purple state," for '03 it was "metrosexual" and for '02 it was "weapons of mass destruction." For 2001...

VT: That was "chad," right?

Allan: No, no, that was in 2000. In 2001, it was "9/11." That was a very interesting and puzzling one. It doesn't follow other patterns very well. Very surprising. When we talk about the 4th of July, we don't say "7/4."

VT: Right.

Allan: I noticed Hurricane Katrina being referred to for a little while as "8/29," but I don't see that anymore. So "9/11" is a very unusual one. I predicted that it would not last as a term for those events, but it certainly has so far. Remember, though, that it takes 40 years for something to become firmly imbedded in our language.

VT: Time will tell.

Allan: Yes, time will tell. "9/11" is the most puzzling exception to my system of analysis. But I've been thinking that maybe I have overlooked the pattern of "7 Eleven," you know, the name of the grocery store. Almost every new word or phrase is built on the pattern of previous ones.

VT: When do you announce the Word of the Year for 2007?

Allan: It's coming up at our annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in early January. During that meeting we receive nominations and then take a final vote on the Word of the Year. Participants are invited to speak on behalf of or against various candidates. The vote will be conducted by a show of hands tomorrow, January 4th. Immediately after the vote, we'll post the results on our American Dialect Society website.

VT: We look forward to it!

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