How Neologisms Keep English Alive

stacks of new coins
"The language mint," said Mario Pei, "is a great manufacturing center, where all sorts of productive activities go on unceasingly" "The Story of Language" (1949). (Anthony Bradshaw/Getty Images)

A neologism is a newly coined word, expression or usage. It's also known as a coinage. Not all neologisms are entirely new. Some are new uses for old words, while others result from new combinations of existing words. They keep the English language alive and modern.

A number of factors determine whether a neologism will stay around in the language. "Rarely will a word enter common usage," said the writer Rod L.

Evans in his 2012 book "Tyrannosaurus Lex," "unless it fairly clearly resembles other words." 

What Qualities Help a New Word Survive?

Susie Dent, in "The Language Report: English on the Move, 2000-2007," discusses just what makes a new word successful and one that has a good chance of staying in use.

"In the 2000s (or the noughties, oughties or zips), a newly minted word has had an unprecedented opportunity to be heard beyond its original creator. With 24-hour media coverage, and the infinite space of the internet, the chain of ears and mouths has never been longer, and the repetition of a new word today takes a fraction of the time it would have taken 100, or even 50, years ago. If, then, only the smallest percentage of new words make it into current dictionaries, what are the determining factors in their success?

"Very roughly speaking, there are five primary contributors to the survival of a new word: usefulness, user-friendliness, exposure, the durability of the subject it describes, and its potential associations or extensions.

If a new word fulfills these robust criteria it stands a very good chance of inclusion in the modern lexicon.

When to Use Neologisms

Here's some advice on when neologisms are useful from "The Economist Style Guide" from 2010.

"Part of the strength and vitality of English is its readiness to welcome new words and expressions and to accept new meanings for old words.

"Yet such meanings and uses often depart as quickly as they arrived.

"Before grabbing the latest usage, ask yourself a few questions. Is it likely to pass the test of time? If not, are you using it to show just how cool you are? Has it already become a cliche?  Does it do a job no other word or expression does just as well? Does it rob the language of a useful or well-liked meaning? Is it being adapted to make the writer's prose sharper, crisper, more euphonious, easier to understand -- in other words, better? Or to make it seem more with it (yes, that was cool once, just as cool is cool now), more pompous, more bureaucratic or more politically correct -- in other words, worse?"

Should the English Language Banish Neologisms?

Brander Matthews commented on the idea that evolutionary changes in language should be prohibited in his book "Essays on English" in 1921.

"Despite the exacerbated protests of the upholders of authority and tradition, a living language makes new words as these may be needed; it bestows novel meanings upon old words; it borrows words from foreign tongues; it modifies its usages to gain directness and to achieve speed. Often these novelties are abhorrent, yet they may win acceptance if they approve themselves to the majority.

"This irrepressible conflict between stability and mutation and between authority and independence can be observed at all epochs in the evolution of all languages, in Greek and in Latin in the past as well as in English and in French in the present.  

"The belief that a language ought to be 'fixt,' that is, made stable, or in other words, forbidden to modify itself in any way, was held by a host of scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were more familiar with the dead languages, in which the vocabulary is closed and in which usage is petrified, than they were with the living languages, in which there is always incessant differentiation and unending extension. To 'fix' a living language finally is an idle dream, and if could be brought about it would be a dire calamity. Luckily language is never in the exclusive control of scholars; it does not belong to them alone, as they are often inclined to believe; it belongs to all who have it as a mother-tongue."