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Coming to terms

Thinking about how words get made can challenge some of our fundamental assumptions.

September 30, 2007|Steven Pinker | Steven Pinker is a professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University and author of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature."

We live in an age in which you can Google, BlackBerry, blog, podcast and spam -- yet none of these words existed (at least in their current senses) just a few years ago.

The addition of vocabulary to the English language is, of course, nothing new. Every word in the dictionary was originally the brainchild of some wordsmith, lost in the mists of history, whose coinage caught on and was passed down the generations.

Words can be coined in several ways. Most new words are simply assembled out of old ones. We can figure out what a defragmenter is thanks to our familiarity with de-, fragment and -er. The last decade has also given us deshopping (buying something to use it once and return it), gripesite (where you post comments about deficient products) and green washing (in which companies cover up polluting practices with eco-friendly PR).

But where do the raw ingredients of words come from? The most obvious source, of course, is onomatopoeia -- when a word resembles what it sounds like, as in oink, tinkle, barf and woofer and tweeter. But onomatopoeia only applies to noisy things, and the resemblance is usually in the ear of the beholder. A more fertile source of new words is the phenomenon called phonesthesia, "the feeling of sound," in which snippets of vowels and consonants vaguely remind people of something because of the way they are pronounced.

Many words beginning with sn-, for example, have something to do with the nose, because you can almost feel your nose wrinkle when you pronounce it. They include words for things associated with the nose (sneeze, sniff, snore and Snuffleupagus) and for looking down your nose at someone (snarky, sneer, snicker, snippy, snooty). Another example: cl- for a cohesive aggregate or a pair of surfaces in contact: clam, clamp, clap, clasp, cleave, clench, cluster, etc.

Why do words that share a teeny snatch of sound also sometimes share a teeny shred of meaning? These clusters grow from a nucleus of similar words that have coalesced for any number of reasons. They may be fossils of a linguistic rule that was active in an earlier period, or in a language from which the words were borrowed, or they might arise by sheer chance. But once similar words find themselves rubbing shoulders, they can attract or spawn new members owing to the associative nature of human memory.

We can infer that phonesthesia was the source of recent words like bling, bungee, glitzy, glom, gonzo, grunge, humongous, scuzzy, skank and wonk. They are not built out of preexisting parts like prefixes, suffixes and roots, and their sounds either remind people of their referents (as in bungee and glom) or vaguely resemble words with related meanings (as in glitter, glamour and ritzy for glitzy, or scum, scuff and fuzzy for skuzzy).

What kinds of things call out to be named? New words, one might guess, should materialize to name a concept that people need to talk about. That's why every hobby and profession quickly develops a jargon. Even casual computer users command an impressive lexicon of new technical terms like modem, reboot and upload. And in an age that professes to treat women and men as equals, what would we have done without Ms.?

But strangely enough, many concepts we long to name remain stubbornly nameless. We still don't have a good word for unmarried romantic partners, or for the current decade, nor a gender-neutral pronoun to replace "he or she." And wouldn't it be handy to have a word for a fact you can learn a hundred times without remembering it, or the early morning insomnia in which your bladder is too full to allow you to fall back to sleep but you're too tired to get up to go to the bathroom?

Every year, the American Dialect Society predicts which new words will catch on. But a follow-up of their picks from the 1990s shows they are about as accurate as tabloid psychics. Some of the words were political barbs that died with the careers of their targets (the verb to gingrich). Others were bets on the wrong name for an innovation, like W3 (that's what they thought we'd call the World Wide Web), information superhighway (way too Al Gore) and Infobahn (yuck).

Though most whimsical neologisms go nowhere, others, mysteriously, can take root. Blog, from "Web log," taps the amorphousness of blob and bog and insouciantly cuts a word against its syllabic grain in the style of 1970s slang like shroom (mushroom), strawb (strawberry) and burb (suburb). Earlier decades gave us yuppie (young urban professional, a play on hippie, yippie and preppy), couch potato, palimony, qwerty (technological inertia, from the keys on the top row of a typewriter) and, the strangest of all, spam.

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