Can You Craft New Words?
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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