When and how are words born?

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When and how are words born?

Etymology – the linguistic specialty that studies the origin of words, the process of incorporation into a language, etc. – allows us to get a close look to a fascinating world. When and how are words “born”? What are the origins of the terms we use every day?

A vocabulary that continues to grow

In October 2021, 455 new words were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “We have been communicating online for decades and pandemic-related circumstances have only increased this practice. The fast-paced, informal nature of texting and tweeting has contributed to a new vocabulary rich in efficient, abbreviated expressions,” stated those in charge.

Some of the new words include TBH (to be honest), amirite (short for am I right) and digital nomad, which is used to refer to people who work remotely from several places.

It is estimated that the English language includes, approximately, 1 million words. Source: Merriam-Webster

In March 2022, nearly 700 new words and phrases were added to the Oxford English Dictionary, but English is not the only language with terms being added to its standard language. In Spanish, for example, the Real Academia Española has incorporated words such as trolear (mockery or provocation) and finde (abbreviation of fin de semana), which respond to a context need.

The transformation of words

English is very flexible and permeable to influences and borrowings from other languages, similar to what happens, for example, with Japanese. As Merriam-Webster points out, “the etymology of a dictionary tells us what is known about a word (…) before it enters that dictionary”, whether it was created in that language or borrowed from another.

Thus, there are several processes that describe the creation and birth of a word:

  • Borrowing
    While much of the English vocabulary comes from Latin and Greek, there are words that were borrowed from almost every European language. In fact, more than 120 languages are recorded as sources of today’s current English.

  • Shortening or clipping
    In these cases, an appreciable part of an existing one is omitted. If the end is cut off, the process is called back-clipping. For example, gymnasium became gym. Fore-clippings are less common in nglish. In them, the beginning of a word is omitted, such as the word phone in the word telephone.

  • Functional change
    Through this process, a word is used with another grammatical function. Examples in English include the development of the noun commute (travel) from the verb to commute (traveling).

  • Back-formation
    Occurs when a prefix or suffix is removed from a word to create a new word. For example, the original name for a type of fruit was cherise (cherry), but some thought the term sounded like it was being said in the plural, so they began using what they thought was a singular form (cherry) and a new word was born.

  • Blends
    This is a word formed by combining other words or parts of words in such a way that they overlap; or one word is embedded in the other. An example?: motel (motor + hotel), this type of combination is also seen in brunch (breakfast + lunch).

Almost 40 years ago, the terms AIDS and HIV entered the English language. However, they did not appear in the dictionary until the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in the late 1980s. Source: The Conversation

In turn, the creation of words and phrases is also linked to other processes, such as acronyms (FBI, NASA, etc.), the transfer of names of people or places – silhouette originates from the name Étienne de Silhouette – imitation of sounds – buzz, hiss, guffaw, whiz and pop, for example – as well as literary and spontaneous minting – boondoggle, googol, jabberwocky.

Understanding the origin and meaning – often far removed from today’s usage of the terms – of the words we use every day is an interesting adventure. In addition, it helps us to expand our lexicon, to find curious connections between words and even to relate to and become interested in learning other languages.

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