Can You Craft New Words?

By Mark Nichol

Are you allowed to create new words? The short answer is indubidefinitely. The very existence and survival of language depends on neologisms. But the long answer is, of course, more complicated.

New word coinages, or new definitions for existing words (such as the use of coinage in a linguistic context), have been created for as long as humans have had the gift of speech — and opposition to neologisms is just as old. Shakespeare introduced hundreds of words, from pious to puking, from secure to seamy, and the last word of the first line of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” was heretofore virtually unknown, but that doesn’t mean his adoptions were universally acclaimed.

(Note that I didn’t use the word invented in the paragraph above, because it’s highly unlikely that most of the words first seen in Shakespeare’s plays didn’t already exist. But for our purposes here, we can give credit to him for presenting them to, and preserving them for, posterity.)

Nor were they always widely adopted. You’ll find Shakespeare’s vastidity (“immensity”), Milton’s inquisiturient (“curious”), and Dickens’s vocular (“quietly vocal”) in some dictionary, somewhere, but I doubt you’ll ever find them on anyone’s tongue. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to coin new words — they have to come from somewhere.

But before you start to mint new words, or try to popularize them, keep these points in mind.

  • What does it mean? If a definition is still in doubt, your efforts to communicate will be compromised by ambiguity. This works both ways: The writer may not understand what it means, and the audience may misunderstand, too.
  • Beware of connotations: Refudiate could have been a great new word, but that fact that it was unwittingly coined, in ignorance, by Sarah Palin indelibly stains it; no one in their right mind would use this word without irony.
  • Is the word appropriate for the tone of the content, or for the audience? If it doesn’t match the expected formality or informality, refinement or vulgarity, or a position on another qualitative continuum, it’s not likely to last.

In nonfiction, neologisms generally have their place only for humorous effect. English has plenty of useful words already, and seldom is there a good reason for new ones. In fiction, the same holds true except for genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. In world-building efforts, you’re likely to craft new words to represent new things or ideas (like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ansible, an instantaneous device for interstellar communication), or existing ones in a “foreign” language (J. R. R. Tolkien’s Eldar, or “Elves”).

There are no rules against forming new words, but if you want one to last, it must have staying power, which it derives from its utility (it communicates a concept better than any existing word) and its potential longevity (the concept in question isn’t ephemeral). Ultimately, though, all you can do is launch your fledgling neologism into the world and hope that it grows wings.

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5 Responses to “Can You Craft New Words?”

  • mrburkemath

    Whether ignorance or typo, the bigger problem with “refudiate” as a cross between refute and repudiate is that the two words are synonyms and the cross adds nothing of value or nuance. It will only become a new word if repeated often enough that the irony wears away and becomes lost.

  • Joshua Smeltzer

    When I decided to start a blog as an outlet for my thoughts on writing my first fiction novel and fiction in general most obvious choices for blog names were taken. My only choice was a new word – fictelicious (delicious fiction). I must have been hungry.

  • Chris

    What are your thoughts on the trend of shortening words, adverbs mostly, by college age kids. Ex. Totes (totally), obvi (obviously) etc. No place in serious writing but with the internet it seems serious writing is not a gatekeeper for success or profit.

  • Mark Nichol

    Chris:

    No prob. Of course, no sane writer would try to get away with truncation (and no sensible editor would let them) except in a novel or a “hip” book for the youngsters — though, in either case, the use of the technique would get old quickly. I’d say, outside of personal communication, the only valid use for truncation in writing is to poke fun at it or the truncator.

  • jennifer

    there’s nothing wrong with the word refudiate. Just because Palin said it, it’s wrong? And if Obummer had to say it, uttering it would send a shiver up some worshipers’ legs.

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