What’s New?

Katherine Barber
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 1, 2003, page 5)

"New words," says John Ayto in the Oxford Companion to the English Language, "are often the subject of scorn because they are new, because they are perceived as unaesthetically or improperly formed, or because they are considered to be unnecessary." Lexicographers, of course, do not share that scorn. After all, the human ability to create new words necessitates updates to dictionaries and thus keeps us out of the Employment Insurance (EI) office ("EI" being of course a neologism itself a few years back). Perhaps another reason we are less scornful is that we know that in many cases perceived neologisms are actually words that have been hanging around on the edges of language for quite some time. When the Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers set about researching the history of the words "acid rain" and "politically correct," for instance, they found evidence of the former from 1859 and of the latter from (wait for it) 1793. I would say that as a general rule words newly entered in dictionaries have probably been in existence, if not part of common parlance, for at least ten years before the dictionary editors give them an entry. While the cliché that "the language is changing more rapidly than ever before" has never actually been proven and may or may not be true, it is indeed a fact that new words are entering the language all the time, as they always have done. With the caveat then that what appear to be neologisms are perhaps not-so-neo-as-you-might-think, let us look in this article and upcoming ones at some of the fields of activity that are particularly productive of new vocabulary.

Coffee klatsch

It is well known that the grandaddy of English lexicographers, Samuel Johnson, was a habitué of coffee houses. We would love to emulate him by spending our days in the local Second Cup, but the best we can do is keep on top of the plethora of new kinds of coffee: mochaccino, macchiato (referring to coffee literally "stained" with milk) and corretto, all borrowings from Italian along with the person serving them, the barista. Our Italian-Canadian lexicographer was shocked to the core that what is known as a "corretto" (or "corrected") in a well-known Canadian coffee bar chain does not have the traditional shot of grappa but merely a drizzle of caramel. Another newcomer in the refreshing beverage department, however, originates far from Italy: the Chinese "bubble tea" made of sweetened flavoured milk with chewy balls of tapioca.

A tangled web

At the risk of being boringly predictable, I must mention the Internet as a very rich source of new words. Among these is of course a spate of new "cyber" and "web" words. We now have cybercafés, -crimes, -culture, -sex, -squatters and -terrorism, webcams, webcasts, weblogs (the diaries also known as "blogs") and web-enabled phones. You can shop on-line "24-7" with a "clicks and mortar" e-tailer, and download MP3 files and JPEGs. The cyberworld has also brought us a number of sense shifts, with handy words like "bookmark" and "browse" taking on new meanings (which now seem not even new to us, because how did we ever manage without them?). We were brought face to face with the need to update for on-line realities with the word "checkout," since there are now virtual checkouts you find on a website in addition to the old-fashioned physical checkouts. Likewise, dictionary entries for "shopping cart" now need to be updated, and expanded to include the variant "shopping basket": not surprisingly, when you shop on-line at grocerygateway.com you need a "shopping cart," whereas at HMV.com you can manage with a mere "shopping basket."

New Canadians

Canadians too have been busy creating their own neologisms over the last few years. For instance, Nunavummiut has become part of Canadian English with the need to designate people from Nunavut. Likewise, the government of Nunavut gets the abbreviation "GN." Speaking of abbreviations, "FN" has become a common short form for "First Nation." A new aspect of Canadian law is the "conditional sentence," described tongue-in-cheek by a Crown prosecutor I know as follows: "Instead of going to the big house, the guilty b****** goes home, gets sent to his room, and watches TV and feels remorse." Needless to say, we define this somewhat more dispassionately, if less colourfully, as "a criminal sentence of up to two years that is served in the community rather than in jail under various conditions imposed by the trial judge, such as house arrest, curfews, community service, etc., the breaching of which may lead to incarceration." Another interesting Canadian invention is the "courier parent," a person who obtains a visa to immigrate only so that his or her children may also get immigrant status.

Meanwhile, marijuana seems to be a rich source of Canadian neologisms, with "BC Bud" and "Quebec gold" designating particularly potent varieties, lovingly tended in "grow ops" for later consumption in "compassion clubs"—or elsewhere.

This rapid tour of just three areas of new word formation has shown that the classic ways of creating neologisms are at work: borrowing, compounding, abbreviation, derivation. I’ll sign off now to do some much-needed lexicographical research at the coffee bar.


The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2001)

Oxford English Dictionary Online (www.oed.com)

Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992)

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