The Deliberate Force of Neologism Use in Academic Writing

A word is not like a gold coin that you bite to tell whether it’s counterfeit, so you might be able to trade it for a mule.

- John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Words themselves carry an often-overlooked intention of change. Every time a speaker or writer uses words they are slightly pushing and pulling the English lexicon. As the “slightlies” of the English-speaking population amass, so does linguistic change. Vocabulary reciprocates this influence with the shaping of an English speaker’s mind. As words simultaneously reflects and guides mental thought, individual thought manipulates language. This entangled relationship is always at work even though very little attention is paid to the power that is always acting on us and we are always exerting over the English language. Neologisms are especially influential in their reflection of current trends and notions, as well as their legitimizing effect over those trends and notions. While arguably more powerful than more established vocabulary, neologisms carry a sense of inferiority to them, thus excluding them from more formal, higher-staked, and wider publicized writings, perpetuating their lack of acceptance. Yet, based on the possibilities for thought expansion, indications of cultural change, and the potential for widening the inclusivity of academic discourse, writers should learn to intentionally use neologisms to push the English language and therefore, English speakers’ minds.

Defining Neologism

The word “neologism” is shrouded in confusion. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the definition as “a word or phrase which is new to the language; one which is newly coined” (“neologism, n.). Seemingly a simple definition, discreetly lingering is the uncertainty as to what exactly “new” is? Fifty years? Ten? One? Roswitha Fischer, an English linguistics professor at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Regensburg, provides a contextual definition of “neologism.” Fischer argues that a neologism exists somewhere between a “nonce-formation” and a “lexical element of the common vocabulary.” A nonce-formation being a spontaneously coined/rarely used word or phrase, while a lexical element of the common vocabulary is a previously established, stable word in the English lexicon (Fischer 5). By setting the definition of neologism within the two wall points of “loosely created” and “stably established,” it is easier to see the subtle definition of neologism manifest. Fischer’s definition is also strong in that it excludes a population of words and phrases that are the highest degree of fleeting. More so, Fischer places this definition within the people based linguistic culture: “A nonce-formation can be seen as an intentional linguistic action. When the formation is used by a number of speakers with similar intentions, the process of institutionalization results in the integration of the neologism into the common vocabulary of language” (Fischer 7). Here, Fischer clarifies that a neologism state is actually a spectrum and not so much a discrete point of being. By Fischer’s logic, every word should go through a period of neologic status. However, the modern complication is that words become stable within English speech, yet maintain the lesser respect typical of a young neologisms in writing.

The Creation of Neologisms

Modern neologisms still litter the natural English lexicon with often little bearing of their previous label as an unstable word. The clearest neologic innovations come from science. Because neologisms are meant to patch some linguistic void, as scientific discoveries are made and technology is invented, the science community must create ways of labeling such concepts. While “pulsar” is a largely accepted stable word in the English language, there is a large currently living population in the United States who lived until 1968 with no such word, nor a need for such a word. Yet, when the “novel [star] between a white dwarf and a neutron” was spotted in 1968, the word “pulsar” (a combination of “’puls(ing st)ar ‘and ‘quasar’” and entered the vocabularic realm and was accepted near simultaneously (“pulsar, n.”). The mathematical term for 10100, too, came from a creative origin. Unlike “pulsar's" play on words, mathematician Edward Kasner’s nine-year-old son came up with the term “googol” for the large number (Kasner 2007). Not only did “googol” become the widely-accepted term for 10100, but the search engine “Backrub” later adopted the term in their renaming as “Google” (“How We Started”). So, from the mind of a nine-year-old came two currently common words: “googol” and “Google.”

Not all neologisms have such distinct need-based origins. While “pioneer” is currently understood as “a person who goes before others to prepare or open up the way; one who begins, or takes part in beginning, some enterprise, course of action, etc.; an original worker in a particular field or department of knowledge; a founder (of some activity, industry, movement, etc.); an innovator, a forerunner,” this meaning did not arise until the 1800s (“pioneer, n.”). Borrowed from the French beginning in the 1500s, “pioneer” was a term specifically and exclusively used by the army to mean the foot soldiers who cleared the way for the cavalry (Metcalf 14). Meanwhile, “O.K.” was a jocular acronym Charles Gordon Green, editor of the Boston Morning Post, used in 1839 as a play on “all correct” (Metcalf 18). “Nerd” gained currency in 1951 when Newsweek published “…someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably a nerd.” Prior to that use, however, came the coining of the term “nerd,” which occurred in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo, published just one year earlier. While the term “nerd” was not intended to mean “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; a person who is boringly conventional or studious,” but rather just be the name of a silly character, the general public made the word its own (“nerd, n.”).

Dr. Seuss’s authority as a writer as well as his wide reach contributed to the success of his neologisms in the same way other authors, psychologists, and presidents have produced successful neologisms. Thomas Henry Huxley, an author and biologist, coined and defined “agnostic” in 1869 to clarify his beliefs from those of atheism. Auguste Comte, a French writer and philosopher, coined “altruism” in 1852. Shakespeare coined “anchovy” in Henry IV, Part 1 (one of his 1,700 credited coinings). Sigmund Freud, a famously controversial psychologist, took the term “ambivalency” from chemistry and neologized its definition to mean “the presence of contrary feeling tones” (Dickson 17, 20, 162; Curzan 106). President Warren G. Harding transferred “normalcy” from a solely mathematical word to be regularly used as an equivalent to “normality” after a slip up during his 1920’s campaign speech (Curzan 107).

Neologisms vary in their construction—some are old words with newly bestowed definitions, some are constructions of a nine-year-olds imagination, some are products of Shakespeare’s penchant for “be-“ing things (“bemonster,” “belittle”) (Curzan 106). Common to near all neologisms, however, is their eventual loss of novelty and “fakeness” they seem to have at first conception. The most explicit example of this would be the Inkhorn controversy. Language purists attempted to trade out words such as “foreign” for “outborn” or “inscription” for “onwriting.” While highly contested at the time, some Inkhorn terms are persisting after more than 400 years; “dexterity,” “extol,” and “superiority” have gained undeniable legitimacy and commonness in the English lexicon (Curzan 96).

There are numerous examples of neologisms that have gained legitimacy and are rarely noticed as different from English vocabulary with greater longevity. However, the concept of neologisms still struggles to lose its air of inferiority. This introduces an inquiry into how exactly certain coined words gain momentum while others, such as the now unfamiliar inkhorn terms of “accersited” and “adnichilate,” gain none at all.

How Neologisms Gain Relevance

While targeted at the elements of rhetoric, William Covino and David Joliffe’s analysis of the rhetorical situation can be somewhat interpreted through the lens of lexicon. Divided into three parts, each aspect of the rhetorical situation provides a framework for understanding the success of a neologism. Exigency, the first of three elements, is described as “a need, a gap, something wanting, that can be met, filled in, or supplied only by a spoken or written text” (Covino 10). Through the lens of the success of neologisms, exigency indicates whether there will be enough demand for the creation and upkeep of a new vocabulary word. If, for example, a nonce-formation arose that was defined as the top right corner of a rock slab, there would be very little exigency. Although there may not be one singular word to signify that spot, there’s very little need to know a succinct, direct way of indicating the spot other than “the top right corner of that rock slab.” The second element of the rhetorical situation is audience, which Covino and Joliffe differentiate from the population of readers and instead specify as the “people who have a reason to be concerned about the exigence and who are capable of acting on it or being acted upon by it” (Covino 11). In the example above, a mason would probably be the best example of someone who would have reason to be concerned with the exact locations on rock slabs. In terms of neologism growth, the more people who would be concerned with needing the word, the stronger backing it will gain. The third element of Covino and Joliffe’s rhetorical situation is rhetorical constraints. Rhetorical constraints are the “frames of mind, belief systems, and ways of life that lead the audience to accept the speaker’s or writer’s ideas” (Covino 11). This is the hardest rhetorical element to conform to the neologism-centered view, however, it can be done in a greater understanding of the power of words to legitimize concepts. Because of this nature of words, a rhetorical constraint of neologisms would be the creation of a word, for example, that means “the unicorn that is always sitting next to someone.” While this is an absurd example, the point is the rhetorical constraints of logic and existence would prevent the success of that word. Thus, an ideal neologism in itself will satisfy a linguistic void that effects a significant population of English speaker and is not too radical in meaning. While this lends the neologism an internal legitimacy, external legitimacy, or the regard as a “real” word, is a complicated entanglement of linguistic authority.

The Question of Linguistic Authority

A present yet elusive concept of linguistic authority has developed within the English language—a hovering idea of “real” versus “fake” words, “legitimate” versus “illegitimate.” Central to the polarizing of real and fake words is the institution of the dictionary. The linguistic habit of referring to “the” dictionary is the clearest indicator of the way we see linguistic authority. While countless dictionaries exist, we’ve constructed the concept of a single “dictionary” that is the authority on whether a word is legitimate or not. However, there is no national linguistic authority in the United States. In France, the Académie française is a national linguistic authority over the French language. A specific commission creates a specific dictionary with all official French vocabulary words and the matter is settled (“Commission du Dictionnaire”). Instead, in the United States, exists a palpable, yet barely identifiable pressure to adhere to a certain English lexicon. Anne Curzan, English professor at the University of Michigan and member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, claims that dictionaries have adopted the role of arbiter over the status of words. Yet, that this is a somewhat modern notion, as Curzan continues to explain the largely different role of the first English dictionaries during the seventeenth century. At the time, lexicographers, aside from recording established language, would actively create and write in words in order to “elaborate the lexicon of the language” (Curzan 94). Thus, there was a great significance as to what dictionary was being used and who exactly the lexicographer was. Nowadays, English speakers expect a certain level of standardization across dictionaries—which, ironically, dictionaries themselves do not seek. In 2005, the new Oxford American Dictionary included the word “esquivalence.” Meaning “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities,” the word and definition was, in reality, a made-up word by the editor-in-chief Erin McKean in order to catch any plagiarism from other dictionaries (Curzan 93). The story of “esquivalence” demonstrates three concepts: dictionary authors no longer see themselves as authors of language, but instead recorders of language, dictionaries think they should vary from one another, and, more importantly, there exists a clear distinction and passion over whether a word is real or fake. There exists a lag, however, between the regard of the author of dictionaries and the role of dictionaries. At a time when dictionaries were the sources of parts of the English vocabulary, they rightfully commanded a certain amount of authority. Now, the responsibility of the dictionary has switched and most dictionary users are unaware. Gene Weingarten, columnist for the Washington Post, in an interaction with Frederick Mish, the editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, exposes the conflicting opinions over what a dictionary is to function as, as Weingarten complains to Mish over the inclusion of a common mispronunciation of “February” in the recent edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Weingarten exclaims “What the hell are you doing to the English language, sir and why should you not be thrashed to within an inch of your life?” to which Mish responds, “We are doing nothing to the language. We don’t make it happen. We are recording what you are doing to the language” (Curzan 104-105). And so, the power over the English is simultaneously owned by both English speakers and dictionaries and not owned by either. And, worse, English writers still conform to the use of “real” and “formal” writing, especially for academia, rather than expanding into the lesser touched English lexicon.

The English Lexicon as a Reflector and Controller of Culture

While neologisms exist being constantly minimized by the imaginary English language authority, the capability of thought is being also constantly minimized. Neologisms serve two functions for English speaking culture—neologisms reflect cultural change and they promote cultural change. The encoding of history in language is somewhat evident, words popularize because they are used increasingly and they are used increasingly if those words have reasons to be brought up in conversations and writings. Edward Sapir explains what this “drift” of the English language as “constituted by the unconscious selection on the part of its individual variation that are cumulative in some special direction” (Fischer 7). As catalogued by Allen Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, in his book Skedaddle to Selfie, Words of the Generations tracking word popularity can expose the values of entire populations. The Lost Generation (born 1883-1990) hinged on words/neologisms such as “flapper,” “speakeasy,” “sexy,” and “slacker,” while The Thirteenth Generation, aka Generation X (born 1961-1981), emphasized words such as “grunge,” “hacker,” “road trip,” hook up,” and “whatever” (Metcalf ix). Language is a comprehensive indicator of the evolution of society. Stealthily, language does not just passively receive culture, it simultaneously curbs it.

Randolph Quirk introduces the concept of “linguistic inadequacy” in his anthology chapter “Natural Language and Orwellian Intervention.” Quirk blames this inadequacy for “disabling people from expressing themselves fully and accurately” and for “disabling them from achieving a proper understanding of or critical response to [things]” (Quirk 48). Quirk expands on the control of thought in his exploration into Orwellian notions, citing Orwell’s “belief that political liberty and simplicity of language are closely linked”—a notion Orwell explores in Animal Farm and more intensely through the Newspeak of 1984’s oppressive government (Quirk 50). Outside of these make believe Orwellian worlds, Tiffany Watt Smith, Ph.D. and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, found scientific proof for the significance of words’ effect on the experience of life a thought processes. Smith writes, “without the right words, we might not be able to register emotions in the faces of other people.” Not only were emotion labels necessary to detecting the experience of that emotion on others, but it was necessary for the person themselves to experience that such emotion. Thus, scientifically confirmed, language quite literally creates the freedom to feel (Smith). Yet, as we consistently observe the power of language to tell and command our lives, we consider linguistic change as something external to the self.

Retaking the English Language

In order to begin the undertaking of authority over the language, it’s important to shift the view of language as not just a reflection of culture, but an artifact of culture. Thus, culture is always occurring before the lexical stability of those words do. In that way, language becomes not completely passive nor completely deliberate, instead, as Roswitha Fischer explains, language is a “phenomenon of the Third Kind,” or the “causal consequence of a multitude of individual actions which serve at least in part similar intentions” (Fischer 7). Language is, therefore, individually active and communally natural. As these small, individual acts of deliberate language accumulate, and specifically neologic language, neologisms begin to simultaneously institutionalize and legitimize themselves, as well as lend pre-established legitimacy to neologisms.

The current trends of radical social rethinking within the globalized and increasingly liberal world calls for this reshaping of the English language that can only be gained when intention is returned to word choice and word adoption. With the recent proliferation of otherism, or encouragement of American supremacy, the way in which we talk and think about US-Mexico relations has become inhibited by the actual vocabulary at an English speaker’s disposal. It is often forgotten that United States of America is not America, nor is it North America. Yet, the United States has taken a hold of the term “America” in all of its forms: “America” as a noun encompasses the fifty states and “American” as an adjective refers to those residing in that region. In the United States, to refer to anything belonging to, originating from, or characteristic of the United States “American” is used. However, Canada, Central America, and South America are all technically America. As a monolingual, English-speaking American (here I am repeatedly doing exactly what I’m attempting to expose), it’s easy to ignore such a blatant political statement we constantly casually make. To Spanish speakers, however, the literal translation of “americano” refers to anyone on either of the American continents. To refer to someone from the United States, they would use the term “estadounidense,” which comes from “estado,” meaning state, and “unidense,” coming from “unidos,” meaning United. So, “estadounidense” more closely translates to “United States-ian.” There is no word like this in English. The limitations of language have shaped the United States’ view of itself and its relationship to any neighbors, making the United States seem more separate from other countries than it actually is. The use of the term “America” and “American” instead of “United States” perpetuates the sense of isolation from the rest of the Americas as well as excluded those in Latin America from consideration as Americans. Movement away from this limiting linguistic habit can only be facilitated by individuals working in harmony to change this standard way of speaking in reference to Americans, just one example of the potential power of people over language and over thought.

A Linguistic Revolution

At once the English language is facing uncertainty in defining neologisms, linguistic insecurity and fear of linguistic authority, and the threat of the thought constriction. In order to allow the freedom to introduce language, academia and the general public must foster awareness of the power of intentioned language and an active undertaking of risk when it comes to the incorporation of new words. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, by John Koenig, is an exemplar of how deliberate lexical expansion can change the human experience and the established English language. Koenig authored hundreds of invented words he felt filled a void in the available emotional language. In talking about his experience authoring a now accepted emotional lexicon, he recounts defining “sonder, the idea that we all think of ourselves as the main character and everyone else is just extras. But, in reality, we're all the main character, and you yourself are an extra in someone else's story.” However, what Koenig explains as the most significant, is the process of beginning to see this invented word “sonder” on the Internet and eventually hearing it in a casual conversation right next to him (Beautiful New Words). Thus, a singular person has singularly molded the English language and expanded our emotional vocabulary and alongside it, our emotional thought.

An active endeavor to push language use in formal or academic writing by including words that are perhaps lesser known, yet more exact and poignant in meaning, or carry an alternate social or political impact, is indeed an academic risk. It may complicate a paper, slightly reduce ease of readability, and elicit slight confusion—or even slightly lower the grade—the eventual acculturation of formal, exclusive academic writing, and innovative, progressive neologisms will, however, eventually outweigh such confusions. In order to achieve such a linguistic revolution, first and foremost, linguistic insecurity must be lessened by minimizing the authority of “the dictionary” and a more comprehensive understanding of the payoff of linguistic risks must be understood and strived for. We must take linguistic action against the misconception that “words are the medium of the message, not the message itself” (Curzan 115). In order to recalibrate the reception and contributions to the English lexicon, there must be the space for many slight actions to amass into a sociolinguistic revolution.

Works Cited

  1. Beautiful New Words to Describe Obscure Emotions. By John Koenig. Perf. John Koenig. TEDx. N.p., Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  2. "Commission Du Dictionnaire." Académie Française. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  3. Covino, William, and David Joliffe. What Is Rhetoric? Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995. Print.
  4. Curzan, Anne. Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.
  5. Dickson, Paul. Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2014. Print.
  6. Fischer, Roswitha. Lexical Change in Present-day English: A Corpus-based Study of the Motivation, Institutionalization, and Productivity of Creative Neologisms. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998. Print.
  7. "How We Started and Where We Are Today." Google. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  8. Kasner, Edward, and James Roy Newman. Mathematics and the Imagination. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.
  9. Metcalf, Allan A. From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.
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  12. "Pioneer, N." OED Online. Oxford University Press, Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  13. Quirk, Randolph. "Natural Language and Orwellian Intervention." English Language Today. Ed. Sidney Greenbaum. New York: Pergamon, 1985. 48-53. Print.