The annual Word of the Year selection by Oxford Dictionaries and others inspired me to an odd personal challenge last year. In November of 2011, about the time that Oxford Dictionaries were settling on squeezed middle as both the UK and US word of the year, I made a New Year’s Resolution for 2012: I would make up and tweet a word a day until 2013 rolled around. In classes, my students and I had been talking about how new words arise; we were disappointed with the mundacity of the textbook examples and inspired by examples like M.K. Anderson’s meg null and J.K. Rowling’s disapparitions, to say nothing of television neologisms like duhmazing and biggerer.
The new year arrived and I jumped in. As I made up my 366 words—dawndle, glind, bycrack, regretoric, laccalaureate, and more, I curated them (they were, after all, artisanal words). I checked various dictionaries, from the OED to the Urban Dictionary to make sure I wasn’t making up something that already existed. This daily practice of word making, which I came to think of as a kind of verbal yoga, taught me several things.
I discovered just how limited my vocabulary was. There were words I simply had not come across before, like thrawn, finick, tain, prehend, fetidity, libate, obclude, and vivify. You should look them up.
Odd puzzles presented themselves. Why do we say behead and unfriend, not dehead and defriend? (It’s got to do with matching up Anglo Saxon and Latin roots and prefixes.) Why do veterate and inveterate mean the same thing? (And why does it bother speakers less than the synonymy of regardless and irregardless?) If you catch up with something that is in a descending trajectory (like education funding), should the verb be to catch down?
The largest percentage of my new words were simple blends, the variety made famous by Lewis Carroll’s chortle. Thus dawndle (to sleep in) comes from dawn plus dawdle, glind (to dance while pressing together) from grind plus glide, regretoric (the language of apology) from regret plus rhetoric, and laccalaureate (someone just a few credits short at graduation) from lack plus baccalaureate. Many were clippings or backformations (like the verb bycrack, from bycracky) and prefixes and suffixes got a workout also. I learned that the noun form of something that needs to be fixed up is fixer upper, with two –ers, prompting breaker downer.
I had some delicious found words as well: the compound every-which-wayiness (which can refer to tangled hair or argumentation), the blend hangry (for the testiness that comes with low blood sugar), and rainmanliness (for the demonstration of savant-like abilities).
New words also come from our mishearings or misspeaking as when we read of “tight-nit groups,” wires “sauntered together,” or an athlete who “vouches never to lose again.” When I overheard the malapropism humbiliate for humiliate, I added it immediately. The meaning: “to humiliate oneself by being excessively humble.”
Some made-up words presented etymological or phonetic challenges: should the word texttumble (to stumble while walking and texting) be a blend of text plus tumble or text plus stumble (and why are stumble and tumble so darn close close anyway)? When I made up twalkers (those who text while walking), I discovered that it worked in print by not when spoken—to sounded too much like a New Yorker saying talkers.
Many of my words had flaws. To succeed new words much be more than just witty, they must capture a much-needed concept or the spirit of the moment. Some were too cute or too esoteric to be adopted. Do we really need to name the concept of flossolallia (the incoherent noises of someone speaking while flossing) or fratulence (the smell of a frat house or gym bag)?
Neology, I discovered, is harder than you think.
How does the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year fare? Selfie has a lot going for it. It captures a new phenomenon (just check your Facebook or Instagram feeds for those). The root self itself is phonetically familiar and psychologically potent (who doesn’t think about themselves?). Grammatically self is both emphatic and reflexive, figuratively shouting ME, ME, ME! Yet, the –ie ending plays a sly joke because it is a diminutive (the ending that shows up in words like townie, groupie, foodie, doggie, birdie, auntie). And it’s rich with allusion to the near-homonym selfish. With this mix of usefulness, familiarity, potency, and a hint of irony, selfie could have a long future.
Edwin Battistella teaches at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. His book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology will be published by Oxford University Press in May of 2014. His previous books include Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others?, Do You Make These Mistakes in English?: The Story of Sherwin Cody’s Famous Language School, and The Logic of Markedness.
The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is ‘selfie’. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word, or expression, that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Learn more about Word of the Year in our FAQ, on the OUPblog, and on the OxfordWords blog.