Evolving Language

Hey Folks!

After reading this — how about creating your own word.

With over 600,000 words, English contains more words than any language in human history. English has changed inconspicuously, yet steadily since establishing its roots in the fifth century. In fact, English has changed so significantly that the English speaker of the year 404 would have great difficulty understanding the English speaker of 1404, not to mention the one of 2004.


An English speaker of 404 might say, for example, “Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon,” which means: “Again he asked, what might be the name of the people from which they came (http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Arcade/1122).” An English speaker of 1404 might say, “We stowpe and stare vp-on the shepes skyn, And keepe must our song and wordes in,” as did poet Thomas Hoccleve, when he complained that artificers could sing while working, but not so clerks like himself. (http://www.r3.org/life/index.html)


But change in language is by no means a bad matter. If the English language resisted change, we would have no words to use to refer to such technological advancements as the internet, or cell phones, or CDs. As long as speakers’ needs change, so will the English language.


The complete and comprehensive vocabulary of English evolved from countless sources. New words can come from any profession, product, or pastime. New inventions and new activities require new words to identify them. Every decade therefore adds a plethora of new words to our language. The following sampling of new words can be found in Webster’s College Dictionary. Can you match each series of these words to their correct decade of origin?


a. 1990s junk mail, beatnik, aerospace

b. 1980s megabyte, hippie, space shuttle

c. 1970s diskette, chairperson, space cadet

d. 1960s desktop publishing, mall rat, virtual reality

e. 1950s web site, personal trainer, V-chip


Now, let’s take a look at some of the other ways in which the English language acquires new words. During the last three centuries in particular, English has continually absorbed foreign words in a sort of vernacular osmosis, so that today words drawn from most of the world’s languages are evident in our English vocabulary. Try to match the following words currently found in English with their country of origin.


a. German: poodle

b. French: salad

c. Spanish: potato

d. Italian: carnival

e. Arabic: sugar


Some words imitate the sounds they make, such as flop, pop, and plop. This soundreproduction approach is called onomatopoeia. Can you think of any more such words?


Additionally, other words can be created from the first letters of a string of words that describe a particular object or process. These words are known as acronyms. Some acronyms in English are better known than are the series of words from which they are drawn. See if you can fill in these blanks. (I hope you fare better than I did on this one!)


a. Laser: L._____ A._____ by S._____ E._____ of R._____

b. Scuba: S_____- C_____ U_____ B_____ A_____

c. Sonar: SO_____ NA_____ and R_____.


The blending of existing words has contributed countless expressions to our English lexicon (or language). The news media is particularly good (or bad, depending on one’s appreciation of these new words) at combining words to form new terms. Some examples are as follows: Infotainment combines information and entertainment. Shockumentary is a combination of shock and documentary. There’s also irratainment (Jerry Springer comes to mind), which combines irritate and entertainment. We English speakers can also fashion fresh words by shortening longer ones (i.e., gym from gymnasium; auto for automobile, and ID for identification). We also create “new” generic words from a preponderance of well known proper (often brand) names (Levis, Kleenex, Xerox, and Coke, as examples). Jell-O is only one type of gelatin, but this brand name is so popular that people often call any gelatin-like substance jello.


Since the turn of the millennium, English has seen the addition of hundreds of new words. Some of these new words will surely last while others will fade into oblivion. Here is a small sampling:


Google: (verb)—to search the Web using the search engine brand-named Google.

Blog (noun): a computer website of personal events, comments, and links. http://www.americandialect.org

Dot-commer (noun): someone who works for an online computer outfit.

Dead presidents (noun): US Paper currency

Frankenfood (noun): genetically engineered food. CBS News.com, June 30, 2003.




Despite their time in the spotlight, some seemingly successful words slip out of usage rather quickly. For example, the American Dialect Society Word of the Year for 1990 is Bushlips, meaning insincere political rhetoric. How many of you could define, much less properly use that word now?


According to Allan Metcalf, Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, the FUDGE factor, which he created, refers to the measure of probability of a word having a long and healthy life. The letters stand for “Frequency of use,” “Unobtrusiveness,” “Diversity of users and situations,” “Generation of other forms and meanings,” and “Endurance of the concept.” The more FUDGE criteria a word meets, the greater chance one has of seeing that word emerge in the dictionary.


Now it’s your turn!


Why not take a stab at predicting a new word for 2008 – a word that has yet to make it to the dictionary? Send me your new words at: rstevens@lander.edu. I’ll spotlight the winners. And just to get you started, here is my contribution: Spinster — one who spins or otherwise embellishes the truth to fit a personal agenda.


As different as the English language of 2004 is from the English of 404, at least one thing remains the same. English continues to be dynamic, ever ready to adapt to meet the changing needs of its speakers.



a. 1950s junk mail, beatnik, aerospace

b. 1960s megabyte, hippie, space shuttle

c. 1970s diskette, chairperson, space cadet

d. 1980s desktop publishing, mall rat, virtual reality

e. 1990s web site, personal trainer, V-chip


Correct as is:

a. German: poodle

b. French: salad

c. Spanish: potato

d. Italian: carnival

e. Arabic: sugar


a. Laser – Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

b. Scuba – Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

c. Sonar – SOund NAvigation and Ranging.



About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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7 Responses to Evolving Language

  1. lunawolf89 says:

    I have a word that I’ve said a few times. “geniecal” a better spelling would be different but its genius and maniacal put together. Also, I don’t think this is a word already but “ginormous” gigantic + enourmous.

  2. robertstevenson says:

    Cool. I’ll start using them today.

  3. Steve says:

    Paul’s World of Funky Stuff cites an article today from the Wall Street Journal giving us a new word: infovore. I like it!

  4. Steve says:

    We love the word ginormous in our family. We first heard on the movie “Madeline.”

  5. Chinpokomon says:

    Ginormous was officially included by Merriam-Webster this past year.

  6. Dan Neaton says:

    My offering is the word “circumpolute”. A verb. I define it as the act of encircling the world with trash.

    I devised the word while illustrating how many half liter plastic bottles are trashed in the U.S. each year. Enough to circumpolute the world about 71 times each year.

  7. Pingback: Words: mixed up meanings « Rob’s Megaphone

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