Folks have asked for a reissue of this post, first published a few months ago, so here it is!

Go Ahead, Make up New Words!

Lexicographer Erin McKean recently gave a short, enthusiastic TED talk about language creativity, in which she encouraged her young audience to make up words.  Check it out here:

She mentions six ways of coming up with new words, which of course got me thinking about (a) great  words which might qualify in each of those categories; and (b) gaps in our language that need filling in with some creativity.  And then, there’s (c), recently coined words or family/friend/colleague “code” words that mean something to only a select group of people.  Those are the ones that enter the language as soon as that select group grows big enough to make the usage ubiquitous (which is in itself an awfully good word, don’t you think?)

Her first category is, bluntly, robbery.  She says we steal words from other languages, like ninja from the Japanese or kumquat from the Chinese.  I like the French words or phrases we’ve appropriated, like rendezvous, or je ne sais quoi, and liaison.

Her second is compounding:  taking two words and linking them together in an obviously descriptive way, such as heartbroken, sandcastle or bookworm.   Which made me think that politics coined frontrunner, religion or music coined choirmaster, and from the stock market, we probably got moneymaker.

I invented “co-mother” to describe the relationship between my daughter’s mother-in-law and myself.  There is no word in English that describes your relationship to your child’s parents-in-law.   Apparently, there is no word for this relationship in any language except for Hebrew or Yiddish, which has the term Machatonim. The parents of the people your children marry are your machatonim (the male is your mechuten, and the female your machatonister.) C’mon, people! We need an English word for this relationship. Your kid-laws, perhaps? Any better suggestions?

Next are blend words, like brunch or edutainment. One of my favorite six- year-olds told me she was very “nexcited” to be going to a special performance of James and the Giant Peach. She gets nervous that something might be scary, but of course she’s still excited to attend, hence….nexcited. She also seems to be a bit ambidextrous, which she calls, much more simply, “both-handed.” Makes perfect sense to me. Oh, and those furry things I stick on my head to keep toasty in winter when I don’t want to wear a hat? She calls them “ear puffs”. Much more descriptive that their retail designation as “ear muffs”, don’t you think? What little kid knows what a “muff” meant in the last century?

Functional shifts: adjectives or nouns into verbs, or the like. Everyone now accepts “to friend” and “to green” as verbs.  I guarantee you will find some article in today’s newspaper using “ahead of” to mean before, as in….”Ahead of his state visit, the President sent a gift….” (I personally detest this particular functional shift) and media types need to “mic” someone prior to their going on the air. ( don’t get me started on “mic” vs. “mike” for microphone. Mic makes no phonic sense. You don’t see “bic” as a short form of bicycle, do you????)

Back formations tend to get people’s backs up sometime, but just about everyone uses “liaise” as a networking-type verb (and we borrowed liaison from the French in the first place, remember?) Oops! There’s network used as a verb! If you ever feel like you’re getting steamrolled or bulldozed….well, those are back formations too.

Then she goes into acronyms formed from first letters of words in common phrases. A whole raft of these have emanated from social media, like OMG, and LOL, but there are lots of older ones, especially from the military, like snafu and AWOL , and every working person’s favorite, TGIF.

What made up words do you live by? Are there gaps in our language you think we need words for? I’d love to hear them! Please send them along!