Are New Words Right for Your Writing?

By Mark Nichol

If you enjoy reading articles about the new words and phrases that make their way into dictionaries each year, you may puzzle sometimes over the selections.

Bromance? Crowdsourcing? Robocall?

“Boomerang child”? “Fist bump”? “Helicopter parent”?

Because you’re likely, like me, a word lover, your perplexity is probably linked not with the question “What do those mean?” but with the query “What took them so long?” (If you are in fact unfamiliar with any of these terms, find their definitions on Merriam-Webster’s website.)

Bromance and crowdsourcing have each been around for more than five years, and robocall is old enough to vote. “Boomerang child” and “helicopter parent” date from the 1980s, and “fist bump” is contemporary with robocall. Why, then, are they appearing in the dictionary only now?

Lexicographers are cautious folks. The Internet is brimming with jargon that hasn’t caught on and isn’t likely to, and people are always slinging slang on the street that will never make the scene. Dictionary editors study usage carefully, evaluating whether a given term has a critical mass of acceptance in writing and conversation before approving it for inclusion.

That’s logical, considering that dictionaries are descriptivist resources — meaning, they describe, rather than prescribe, usage — but they don’t admit just any word. They let society try it on for size for a while before giving it the nod (or not).

Sometimes, their confidence is unfounded, but a more pertinent issue for the writer is, these words and other neologisms are certainly valid for conversation and informal writing, but would you use them in a thesis or an academic journal or a scholarly book? Are they appropriate for marketing materials or other business communications? The mere fact that I asked these questions doesn’t mean your answers should be no, but be sure to ask yourself the appropriate question.

And just because a given term has made the team doesn’t mean it doesn’t need an introduction coming off the bench. Depending on your audience, you might want to provide at least a gloss, or a brief definition (the preceding phrase is a gloss of the word gloss), if not a more extensive discussion of the term.

English is extremely welcoming of new vocabulary — and I wouldn’t have it any other way — but remember that the language consists of various linguistic registers, and one of the responsibilities of a writer is to be aware of proper usage for the type of writing in question.

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8 Responses to “Are New Words Right for Your Writing?”

  • Retta McSweeney

    Above you have used the word “got,” one of the ugliest words in our language. It is so stupid for people to say “you’ve got” when it sounds so much better by dissolving the contraction and using “you have,” PERIOD. Bury the word GOT forever; never exhume it ever, ever, ever again. Please change the question above to “Have something to say?” It sounds so much nicer; not as gutteral as “Got something to say?”

  • Meg Brookman

    Sorry, Ms. McSweeney, but I can’t imagine the GOT MILK? campaign being the hit it was if it had been HAVE MILK? And that goes for its imitators, including the (at one time) ubiquitous GOT GOD?

    Nor would I want to lose the great line: Get it? Got it? Good! Without the ‘got’ it would have no punch at all.

    ‘Guttural’ sounds shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. They add seasoning that most of us would miss terribly if eradicated from the English language.

  • MT Nickerson

    You’ve got something against got, I see. My wife doesn’t like the word pupil for some reason. To each their own, to each their own…

  • Paul M

    Does she gots two pupils?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    I’m just worried one of these days the language will change so much, no one will understand what I say. I have a hard enough time as it is.

  • Constant Writer

    I write very much like I speak, so including new words is pretty commonplace for me. I even invent a few if the occasion calls for it. Adding jargon is totally appropriate for writing as long as it is compatible with your audience. If your audience is a bunch of retirees, “bromance” probably isn’t going to fly.

  • Paul M

    I was chatting with an eighty+ year old man today, we were sitting on his front porch in two rockers and laughing. I could just imagine the look on his face if I had interjected the word ‘bromance’ into the conversation Constant, you’re right I don’t think it would fly haha.

    I’m sitting in the middle at forty, so I feel I might tip either way. I ‘liked’ Urban Dictionary on Facebook, I find it amusing at times but fear for the worst if it becomes a source for writers to find new words (((shivers))).

  • AnWulf

    I just did a find on this page and the only place that I see “got” is in the comments. Maybe it was edited out before I saw it.

    @Meg … You’re using it differently than Retta.

    If you use “gotten” as the participle instead of “got”, you’re likely not to make that mistake.

    Then … “Have you gotten something to say” obviously is, at least, fremd.

    I’ve just finish a section on a short story that, in reality, re-introduces words to old meanings.

    Words like glim, rekels (tho I spelled it reekels), lendes, wynn, grin (for snare), bote, swidden … I even threw in embiggen!

    Likely the oldest word was elf-sheen.

    I don’t usually use so many odd words in as many pages but I was answering a challenge to use as few Latinates as I could. It was hard!

  • Julie

    Quick kudos to Mark. In addition to composing a provocative article, you did so with clever, acute prose. Bravo!

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