How new words are created

4.1.1‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”… You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

In this way, Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass tries to explain some unusual words to the curious Alice. Slithy didn’t pass into general use, but the idea of the portmanteau word certainly did, and has survived long after the portmanteau itself – a large heavy suitcase that opens into two parts – has fallen out of use.

A portmanteau word is created by combining the beginning of one word and the end of another and keeping the meaning of each. A less colourful term for it is a blend and it is one of the more ingenious ways in which new words can be generated. Among the hundred new words added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online this month, are hangry (angry because you are hungry) and frenemy (someone who is both your friend and your enemy). ‘Hack’ combines with ‘activist’ to give us hacktivist (a political or social campaigner who secretly looks at information on someone else’s computer system) and with ‘marathon’ to form hackathon (an event at which a large number of people work together to develop new software products in a matter of days).

Some new compounds are like portmanteau words but just take the beginning of each word: dash cam (dashboard camera) and EdTech (educational technology) are two examples. Short words can be absorbed whole into the new word and they can generate both portmanteau words and new compound words. There has recently been a spate of new informal words attempting to capture the habits and behaviour of men: manscaping (man + landscaping) is when a man shaves off all his body hair in order to try and look more attractive; to mansplain (man + explain) is to explain carefully to someone (as if she’s dumb) something that she already knows all about; and man flu is simply a bad cold that a man treats as if it were flu or something more serious.

Some people complain that these new ‘man’ words are sexist and it is wise to be aware that they may give offence. This does not stop people from using them, however. Manspreading has an interesting history. This is the practice of a man sitting on public transport with his legs wide apart, taking up more space than he needs and preventing other people from sitting down. This term became popular when New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority ran a poster campaign against the habit. The posters never used the term ‘manspreading’: they simply said ‘Dude! Stop the spread.’ It was the media, taking up the campaign, who called it ‘manspreading’ and the term stuck.

Other words that have been generating new compounds recently include warrior and capital. A ‘warrior’ is any kind of campaigner – it covers quite a wide range, from class warrior and culture warrior to keyboard warrior and road warrior. ‘Capital’ is a valuable resource in the form of skills or knowledge or influence, including human capital, political capital and social capital.

New words form in other ways too. Suffixes can be added to form new derivatives with a different part of speech. If something has impact, then it is impactful. Interdisciplinarity and interoperability are the qualities of being interdisciplinary or interoperable. But there doesn’t even have to be a suffix. When two geeks get together they can geek or geek out over computing tasks, technical stuff or anything that interests them. The noun has become a verb.

Existing verbs can generate new phrasal verbs. Even though telephones no longer have dials, the verb dial has stuck and now gives us dial somebody in (to a conference call) and dial something up (to order something by phone). Equipment may or may not be controlled by dials, but, regardless, you can dial down or dial up the volume, heat or power. These terms can also be used figuratively: He called on both sides to dial down the anger. Or you can be/get dialled in: As an actor, she really gets dialled into her roles.

Language is endlessly creative and generative. Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here. And look out for the next update, when the focus will be on idioms.


About the author: Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

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