More on new words

This week Percy Bacon has a post in FiveThirtyEight on the ideas that are reshaping the democratic party and america. He argues that American institutions and voters, particularly on the left are making a shift on issues related to equality and identity. On the other hand many conservatives and Republican officials are regularly invoking the term “woke” as an all-encompassing term for liberal ideas they don’t like. As a result, there is a kind of magmatic lexicogenesis process going on:

Many Americans probably don’t know exactly what terms such as anti-racism, “cancel culture,” “racial equity,” “white privilege” and “systemic racism” mean. And it’s likely even fewer could explain such concepts as “woke ideology,” “critical race theory” or “intersectionality.”

A new social and political reality seems to be in the process of being captured by English language. English speakers are very creative when it comes to making up new words, and my guess is that we are still in that process. Some of those compound nouns will evolve into full portmanteaus, while others, of course, will vanish into thin air.

Language is crucial to how we perceive the world. It is not only a way to share or convey ideas. It is also, and perhaps even more critically, a way to “sell” (or not) those ideas. Here, for example, George Monbiot argues that we need to find better ways of describing nature and our relationships with it so we can better defend it.

If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.

So why do we use such language to describe the natural wonders of the world? places in which nature is protected are called “sites of special scientific interest”. At sea, they are labelled “no-take zones” or “reference areas”.

Words possess a remarkable power to shape our perceptions. They encode values that are subconsciously triggered when we hear them, and when certain phrases are repeated, they can shape and reinforce a worldview.

German has captured many of the new oddities of pandemic lifestyles:

It has words for a socially distanced beer, Abstandsbier; corona hairstyle, Coronafrisur; and “cuddle contact,” someone you may break distancing protocol for, Kuschelkontakt. A Geisterveranstaltung is a “ghost event,” such as sports matches that have no attendees. They call an essential worker an Alltagsheld, or an everyday hero. Someone who’s gone out of their way to shop for the needy is known as an Einkaufsheld, or shopping hero.

The Leibniz Institute for the German Language, which documents new vocabulary every year, has compiled 1,200 new words found in print across the German-speaking world over the past year. They’re not necessarily part of everyday language, but the institute is monitoring them to see which spread more generally into day-to-day-speak. German is great for bunching together multiple words into lengthy megawords. My dear Spanish is a bit more… supercalifragilisticoespialidoso

This is Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. talking about lexicogenesis in (the context of) science fiction (my emphasis)1:

The coining of new words is both an aesthetic and a practical matter. Each new word disrupts the previous flow of language (…) Neologogenesis, the production of new words, is a vital process in all living languages. Grammars tolerate few changes over time, so languages usually accommodate social and cultural changes through new vocabulary and usage. This accommodation is especially true when communities establish connections with foreign cultures or undergo technoscientific transformations. Neology is consequently of central importance for modernizing societies, whose languages must be dynamic and flexible enough to permit new customs, concepts, and objects to become part of collective experience.

Scientific-technological development in particular creates its own neologistic momentum. (…) Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration. Whether the potential is realized or not is largely a matter of the politics of culture. If a community of speakers cannot agree that the language should be capable of modern intercultural expression, then that role will be filled by another language.

What’s interesting looking to the examples above is that we might be entering into a new stage in which beyond science and tecnology, it is a larger set of social and environmental concerns and needs which is driving our ideas, and pushing them into our day to day. Language would be both medium and signal of this new stage.

Or maybe I’m just dreaming, cause yeah, you know that this blog is all about my obsession with new ideas.


(1) Istvan Jr, C.-R. (2008). The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP.

Featured Image: Mary Poppins, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

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