Neologisms Come and Go

By Mark Nichol

New words are being developed all the time, and there’s nothing we can do to stop this continuous expansion of our vocabulary—other than stop speaking, writing, and thinking, that is. After all, every word was new once. However, the lexicographical graveyard is crowded both with words that never caught on and with others that were long ubiquitous but are now obsolete. And though many dictionary entries have existed for decades, and quite a few are centuries old, many neologisms do not survive.

Dictionary.com recently announced that it is adding about 300 new words to its website and updating nearly 2,000 more definitions to reflect changes and additions to word meanings. Some of the new words have been coined in response to an evolving understanding of gender and sexuality. For example, hijra, borrowed from Hindustani, refers to transgender people. (Some Asian countries have begun to recognize as a third gender people who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.) Misgender is a term pertaining to the misidentification of a person’s gender. Panromantic denotes someone whose sexual attraction is not limited by gender. Meanwhile, ze is the result of a persistent effort among gender activists to remedy the awkward absence of an official English pronoun that pertains to both—ahem, all—genders. (Here’s the already widely accepted solution to that problem.)

No matter what your opinion about gender fluidity or gender identity, such words will continue to elbow their way into dictionaries; after all, they fill a need that some people believe exists. These specific terms might not survive, but because art imitates life, the art of verbal expression will always evolve to reflect changes to culture and society.

Other words that pertain to gender or sexuality but have more jocular senses are more likely to be ephemeral. New Dictionary.com entries in these categories that no one should bet on include lumbersexual, a play on metrosexual—does anyone use that word anymore?—that refers to men who affect outdoorsy-looking attire in urban settings; manspread, referring to the habit among some males of claiming more than their fair share of seating space by parting their legs widely; and presstitute, a portmanteau word of sorts describing a journalist biased toward financial interests. Then there’s “mom jeans,” a phrase referring to an unfashionable item of clothing.

One can influence the acceptance or rejection of terms on a small scale by refusing to use them or by avoiding publications or programs that do so, but development of new vocabulary terms is an organic process that, like life itself, is not easily suppressed. But as is the case with new types of life-forms, many new words will not prevail.

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2 Responses to “Neologisms Come and Go”

  • Agua Caliente

    Being a person who has learned to accept neologisms, I find myself kind of attracted to “panromantic.” It could supplant the somewhat harsher-sounding and more restrictive “bisexual” (and in some cases be more accurate, of course).

    Much less fond of “ze.” We’ll see where that one goes, if anywhere.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I’m not overly attracted to any of the newly coined words in your article. I don’t imagine I’ll use them in the near future. Actually, some of the gender-bending terms could be used in reference to my wife’s nephew. But because he’s Thai and speaks not a word in English I’ll have to learn the equivalents in his language.

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