Word Of The Month: Neologism

David Zapatka

Have you ever wondered how words are added to the dictionary?

New words, phrases and definitions are added to the Oxford English Dictionary four times a year. A recent revision included over 1,200 changes and updates from a new sense of the word “thing” to the well-established, but newly-prominent usage of the word “woke.”

The OED staff has a huge database of potential new words and definitions, compiled from a lot of different sources: personal observation, suggestions from the public, their reading program and through computational analysis. In order to be entered into the OED, a word or definition must satisfy certain evidentiary requirements. There must be widespread evidence in a variety of sources attested to over a significant period of time. The OED is a historical dictionary which aims to cover the full thousand-year history of English. They tend to wait awhile before adding neologisms to ensure they have staying power.

An example of a new entry is a new definition or sense for the word “thing.” That’s a well-established word that you wouldn’t expect to be seeing a lot of innovation with, but the OED just added a new sense to cover the way it’s used in phrases like, “Are you serious? Is that a thing now?” or “I can’t believe dog strollers are a thing!” The earliest citation is from 2000 in an episode of the television show, The West Wing: “Did you know that ‘leaf peeping’ was a thing?”

What is ‘leaf peeping,’ you may ask? ‘Leaf peeping’ is an informal term for the activity in which people travel to view and photograph the fall foliage in areas where leaves change colors in autumn, particularly in New England. A similar custom in Japan is called momijigari.

If you’re a Scrabble player, you see new words being added to the dictionary all the time. The latest update had over 4,000 new words. Are we adding more words to our language than ever before? That’s unknown, but we are certainly more aware of new words, and these new words are able to spread around the world more quickly. This is particularly true as evidenced in my slang and informal language dictionary.

The word “neologism” was used in a paragraph above and is our word this month.

Neologism – noun nē-ˈä-lə-ˌji-zəm a new word, usage, or expression. From French néologisme, from ne- + log- + -isme –ism. Earlier from Greek “neos” (meaning “new”) and “logos” (meaning “word”).

The English language is constantly picking up neologisms. In recent years, computer technology has added a number of new terms to the language such as “webinar,” “malware” and “blogosphere.” The word neologism was itself a brand-new word at the beginning of the 19th Century when English speakers first borrowed it from the French.

Please submit any neologisms you would like to see put in the next OED, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share, along with your insights and comments, to dzapatka@wbhsi.net.