Predicting new words
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Jan 18, 2003


Why do some new words become staples of our everyday language while others

fade away? Why have words and phrases like \"moonlighting,\" \"politically

correct\" and \"yuppie\" entered the mainstream, while other recently minted

ones like \"velcroid\" (a person who sticks by the president, \"especially for

photo opportunities\"), \"prosultant\" (emphasizing the positive in the

consulting business) and \"shuicide bomber\" (\"terrorist with bomb in shoes\")

have failed to catch on?

Why did \"server\" as a gender-neutral term for waiter or waitress prevail

over \"waitron\"? Why do restaurants serve \"brunch\" but not \"linner\"? Why did

\"Lilliputian\" catch on, but not \"Brobdingnagian\"?

In tackling such questions, Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the

American Dialect Society, has come up with an intriguing idea for a book.

But while \"Predicting New Words\" is filled with interesting tidbits and

asides, the book as a whole is full of holes and flawed by a dogmatic and

not always logical thesis.

It is Mr. Metcalf\'s contention that you can tell what words are likely to

survive by applying a simple formula involving what he calls the FUDGE

factors: the Frequency with which a new word is used; the Unobtrusiveness of

the new word, meaning its ability to slip unnoticed into daily usage without

calling attention to itself; Diversity of users and situations in which the

new word is employed; Generation of other forms and meanings (i.e.,

\"Watergate\" giving birth to \"Travelgate\" and \"Whitewatergate\"); and

Endurance of the concept, meaning that the idea to which the new word refers

proves durable over time (unlike, say, Y2K).

Other factors, Mr. Metcalf argues, do not matter much. It doesn\'t matter

whether a word is new: chad, for instance, had been around for ages before

achieving celebrity with the messy 2000 election standoff in Florida; in

contrast, a phrase like Saddam Hussein\'s \"mother of all\" locution was a new

formulation that quickly caught on.

While new creations or phenomena sometimes get a new name - like \"software\"

or \"affirmative action\" - gaps in the language are not always filled: a

compelling and widely embraced name for the first decade of the 21st century

has yet to be found, though many suggestions like \"the aughts,\" \"the

naughts,\" \"the zeros\" and \"the oh-ohs\'` have been floated. Nor does an

existing term for an idea or concept rule out the adoption of trendy new

phrases: running amok and going berserk, for instance, did not preclude the

introduction of \"going postal\" in the 1990\'s.

Intriguing as some of Mr. Metcalf\'s observations are, his overarching thesis

about predicting the staying power of new words remains unconvincing. In the

first place, he doesn\'t back up his theory with enough examples to make it

feel fully grounded. \"Predicting New Words\" seems highly cursory in the

extreme. It pays little attention to the role that popular culture has

played in promoting new words and phrases: no discussion of words from

movies like \"neuralizer\" (from \"Men in Black\") or \"hurl\" (given a popular

new meaning by \"Wayne\'s World\") and scant discussion of computer slang and

teenage talk as well.

In addition, some of the examples Mr. Metcalf cites in support of his thesis

are decidedly dubious. His citation of \"Frankenfood\" (\"a scary word for

genetically modified foods\") as \"a fairly successful new word\" is debatable

at best, as is his contention that the phrase \"sex kitten\" is obsolete.

Of the five FUDGE factors, he says, \"Unobtrusiveness seems especially

important.\" He argues that people use words to make jokes but don\'t want the

words themselves to be jokes: \"The more general principle is that a word

shouldn\'t call attention to itself, by humor or by any other means - its

looks or origin, for example. If it does attract notice, chances are it will

be rejected.\"

This principle, however, seems to be contradicted by some of the examples

Mr. Metcalf cites. \"Couch potato,\" for one, was a term based around the

comical image of a fat, dumpy creature perched on a sofa, all eyes on the

television, and wordplay stemming from a term for television aficionados:

\"tubers.\" As for \"gerrymander,\" it has roots in a 19th-century joke about

Eldridge Gerry, a Massachusetts governor who rearranged the election

districts in the state to the advantage of the Democratic party. Although

Mr. Metcalf argues that these words succeeded only when their jokey

beginnings were forgotten, the fact remains that they began life as humorous


Words like \"googol\" and \"scofflaw\" challenge Mr. Metcalf\'s belief that

successful new words tend not to be conspicuous or bizarre. And his

assertion in one chapter that \"relatively few foreign words are directly

imported into our language with success\" because \"they look too foreign\" is

contradicted by his observation, in another chapter, that \"English is famous

for swallowing words whole from other languages.\"

One additional oddity of this book is the amount of space it devotes to

examples of ungrammatical language and plain old-fashioned gaffes, most

notably those made by President George W. Bush. Among the famous Bushisms

cited in this book are: his use of terms like \"mential\" (\"This is still a

dangerous world. It\'s a world of madmen and uncertainty and potential

mential losses\") and \"misunderestimate\" (\"They misunderestimated me\"), and

his substitution of \"hostile\" for \"hostage\" (\"We cannot let terrorists and

rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile\") and

\"anecdote\" for \"antidote\" (\"A tax cut is really one of the anecdotes to

coming out of an economic illness\").

The problem is that in citing such examples, Mr. Metcalf is himself

confusing grammatical mistakes with innovation: just one of the stumbles in

this book that makes it a lot less persuasive than it might have been.

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aivars  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:38
English to Spanish
+ ...
language is an infectious disease Jan 19, 2003

Jacek, now I realize that you are a specialist in introducing the toughest and most insightful questions.

As for this guy who pronounces exactly the opposite of what he wants to say, I think the whole thing explains itself with the concept of Freudian slip. When you are not being honest, what you really think slips through at times.

I would say that a word remains if somehow it becomes the best option to express an idea no matter how banal. There are expressions and words in Spanish, I never use because to me they sound corny or too \"clumsy\" or else. But also, like memories, there are words that remain because we just can\'t avoid them. In those cases, language is a virus.

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Maya Jurt  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:38
Member (2002)
French to German
+ ...
Higly recommended - by Jacek! Jan 19, 2003

Thanks for drawing our attention to this book. I have not read it, but after reading Kakutani\'s critic, I am convinced that it would not only be fun to read it, but very instructive as well.

One may agree with the author or not, words, especially now words, are a delicacy for any linguist\'s palate.

This article on Metcalf lives up to the highest tradition of the critic. Demolish, because Kakutani would have surpassed the author had he had a chance and time to write it yourself.

Therefore, Jacek, those lines are only praise. No critic would waste the time to demolish a book if it was not worth reading it.

Thank you for that. And congratulations!


[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-19 21:54]

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Valters Feists  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:38
Latvian to English
+ ...
A link to related info Aug 1, 2003

Panel -- Future Slang: Inventing a New Language
How does one produce an idiom that can seem alien yet remain comprehensible?

It's easy to get it wrong: remember the Battlestar Galactica fleets that were microns apart?
Burgess invented the teenage slang for Clockwork Orange
Iain Banks hopes the slang in Feersum Endjinn evokes a feeling of being a child, with everything around being too big.
Brian Aldiss: "my Confluence language is a mixture of speech and posture" -- cf tonal Chinese. Iain Banks: "The Culture's stupid starship names were influenced by Confluence"
OED attributes many words to Shakespeare, and to Lewis Carroll (eg, 'chortle'). Brian Aldiss is credited with a 100 words and phrases -- "mainly disgusting ones". William Gibson invented many new words, for a technology that doesn't exist, and that he doesn't understand.
Jack Williamson, 1941: terraform
Robert Forward: scotty, for any space engineer
Robert Heinlein: waldo, grok
It's very difficult to invent new words, because they are new to the reader, too, and so don't have the right resonances. Iain Banks coined feeb, with (correct) resonances of dweeb and feeble.
A spoof article tries to show that all computer terminology is obscene, with its floppys, RAMs, peeking and poking. "And does anyone know what a Texas Instrument really is?"
Despite its Universal Translator, Star Trek has managed to spawn an alien language which people all over the planet can speak: Klingon. "It sounds like throat-clearing, or swearing. Why didn't they use Welsh?" "Probably more people speak Klingon than Welsh!" There's a Klingon course in Germany.
English has an awful lot of words -- most of which stay in the dictionary! People don't tend to say 'excellent' or 'superior', and certainly not 'double plus good', but instead 'mega good'. Is it because they are illiterate, or just because it sounds cool?
English is almost-universal. It provides a core language to a very broad and diverse range of peoples, plus many specialist sub-languages (which are what SF writers tend to invent). These are 'cultural dialects' rather than 'regional dialects'. "Jargon is a virtual dialect."
Calling an alien riding animal a 'horse', and then having it eat slugs, can give a better alien feel than calling it some word with lots of 'x's and 'h's.
The name-with-apostrophe has become a cliché. And is it supposed to be a glottal stop, or a click, or what?

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