Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success

Overview

Have you ever aspired to gain linguistic immortality by making up a word? Many people—such famous writers as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Dr. Seuss, along with many lesser-knowns—have coined new words that have endured. But most of the new words people put forward fail to find favor. Why are some new words adopted, while others are ignored? Allan Metcalf explores this question in his fascinating look at new-word creation.
In surveying past coinages and proposed new words, ...

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Overview

Have you ever aspired to gain linguistic immortality by making up a word? Many people—such famous writers as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Dr. Seuss, along with many lesser-knowns—have coined new words that have endured. But most of the new words people put forward fail to find favor. Why are some new words adopted, while others are ignored? Allan Metcalf explores this question in his fascinating look at new-word creation.
In surveying past coinages and proposed new words, Metcalf discerns lessons for linguistic longevity. He shows us, for instance, why the humorist Gelett Burgess succeeded in contributing the words blurb and bromide to the language but failed to win anyone over to bleesh or diabob. Metcalf examines terms invented to describe political causes and social phenomena (silent majority, Gen-X), terms coined in books (edge city, Catch-22), brand names and words derived from them (aspirin, Ping-Pong), and words that derive from misunderstandings (cherry, kudo). He develops a scale for predicting the success of newly coined words and uses it to foretell which emerging words will outlast the twenty-first century. In this highly original work, Metcalf shows us how to spin syllabic straw into linguistic gold.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1990, Metcalf (How We Talk: American Regional English Today), executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, had the idea that the ADS should choose an annual New Word of the Year. That year, the winner was the shortlived bushlips ("insincere political rhetoric"). Some of the ADS's other choices fell into obscurity just as quickly, prompting Metcalf to write this entertaining investigation of which new words have staying power, and why. He discusses winners (1941's teenager) and losers (1995's schmoozeoisie, "a class of people who earn their living by talk"); reveals the forgotten jokes behind familiar terms like couch potato and gerrymander; and shows that the success of a word has little to do with whether or not it fills a gap in the English language. Metcalf also describes his system for predicting the success of au courant words (he gives weapons-grade high marks for endurance, while consigning quarterlife crisis to the ash heap). Edifying and humorous, this little book is irresistible fun. (Oct. 21) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
"Just plain fun."
Kirkus Reviews
Language authority Metcalf (The World in So Many Words, 1999, etc.) entices readers into the quirky, sometimes mysterious process by which brand-new words and phrases emerge to define the times in which we live.

Technology’s march crushes as many words as it anoints, observes Metcalf (English/MacMurray Coll.). "Chad," for instance, even though it has recently spawned "hanging" and "pregnant" variants, will not outlive the punch card. The author’s main premise is that he has developed a formula that, applied to existing neologisms, will let us make an educated guess as to whether they will stick around or not. The FUDGE scale (Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users, Generation of other forms, Endurance) is mildly persuasive, but Metcalf’s text is not mission-critical stuff; it’s just plain fun. For example, the origin of the now universally accepted "okay" is traced to a wacky but thankfully short-lived fad among 19th-century writers and editors to use garbled acronyms as a kind of satiric commentary: hence, "all correct" becomes O.K. in the same vein that N.S.M.G. stands for "‘nuff said ’mong gentlemen." Even more amusing are fraudulent scholarly attempts to pass "okay" off as derivative of foreignisms ranging from French to Finnish and even Scots dialect ("Och aye," or, "oh, yes"). More serious is the way event-driven phrases latch on as historical shorthand: "9/11," for instance, recasts "Ground Zero," a nearly forgotten technical reference to the point of a nuclear detonation, into a site of unspeakable horror. Also notable is the growing impact of computer analysis on word origins. Shakespeare, for example, is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with inventingmore than 1,000 English words since legitimized by common usage; recent scanning of earlier texts reveals, however, that the Bard may often have taken preexisting but little-used words and put them solidly on the map within the memorable contexts of his works.

Farewell soccer moms, hello women of cover.

Author tour

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618130085
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/14/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Allan Metcalf is a professor of English at MacMurray College, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of books on language and writing. His books on language include AMERICA IN SO MANY WORDS (with David K. Barnhart), THE WORLD IN SO MANY WORDS, HOW WE TALK: AMERICAN REGIONAL ENGLISH TODAY, PREDICTING NEW WORDS, and PRESIDENTIAL VOICES. His books on writing include RESEARCH TO THE POINT and ESSENTIALS OF WRITING TO THE POINT. He lives in Jacksonville, Illinois.

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Table of Contents

Introduction v
A Note on Sources xii
Acknowledgments xiv
1 The Mystery of Success 1
2 How to Be a Loser 15
3 Winning Creations 43
4 The Myth of Gaps 63
5 Exceptions That Test the Rule 78
6 Natural Birth and Rebirth 97
7 Forget the Joke and Fly Under the Radar 129
8 The FUDGE Factors 149
9 The Crystal Ball 167
10 A Word of Your Own 185
Appendix American Dialect Society Words of the Year 188
Index 195
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