This week’s entry: Neologism
What it’s about: While many among us pretend that language is fixed and settled, enshrined in the dictionary as if carved in stone, the lexicon is in fact in constant motion, as antiquated words fall out of favor, and new ones are introduced. Whether new inventions like “internet” or “selfie,” or concepts that we can finally put a word to, like “posterize” or “Schweppervescense,” neologisms are constantly being added to the language, whether you like it or not.
Strangest fact: Some words that seem like they’ve been around forever are in fact fairly recent neologisms. Genocide was coined after WWII to describe the Holocaust. There was no word for homophobia until 1969, when the Stonewall Riots made its existence widely known. Memes have only been around since 1976, and while black holes were first theorized in 1916, they weren’t called that until 1968.
Biggest controversy: “Neologism” has a different meaning in psychiatry, referring to a word that only means something to the person using it. This is typical in young children still grasping language, but in adults it can be indicative of psychopathy or schizophrenia.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Anyone among us could be immortalized by a neologism. Numerous words have been taken from someone’s name (nearly always an author). We use words like Orwellian, Kafkaesque, and sadistic for situations best described by those authors’ works. Fictional characters also lend themselves to neologisms, as no one was called a scrooge, a pollyanna, or quixotic before A Christmas Carol, Pollyanna, or Don Quixote were published.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Stephen Colbert didn’t actually invent “truthiness.” It was an existing, if obscure, word, which already had a place in the dictionary before its use in the debut episode of The Colbert Report. However, Colbert created a new meaning for the word—something feeling true even if the facts say otherwise—so it’s still considered a neologism.
Also noteworthy: Some neologisms are proper names that make the transition to common usage. This nearly always involves a brand name becoming a colloquial term for the product in question—Kleenex, Xerox, Band-aid, Frisbee, Post-it, hoover (in the U.K.), and even aspirin and Laundromat all started out as brand names, but became synonymous with their product.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Perhaps more than any other TV show, our language has been embiggened by The Simpsons, who have added many perfectly cromulent words to the lexicon over the years. That show’s Wikipedia page includes a section on “idioms,” listing words and phrases whose usage has expanded beyond the bounds of the show. The list includes “craptacular,” “yoink,” and of course “D’oh” (which Dan Castellaneta says originates with Laurel and Hardy supporting actor James Finlayson), but is very far from complete. Fortunately there’s a Simpsons wiki with an exhaustive list of everything from adultivity, blingwad, and crisistunity, to unpossible, velocitator, and you-know-what-icide.
Further down the wormhole: “Cyberspace” may seem like a very dated way to describe the internet, but in the 1990s it sounded very futuristic, likely because it came from William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Despite its prescient futuristic content, Gibson wrote the novel on a 1927 Hermes portable typewriter, although he eventually did start writing on a computer. When the typewriter was invented, it was marketed toward women, assuming that they would be used primarily by secretaries taking dictation. As a result, businessmen making advances on their comely typist became a cliché of that more sexist age. That cliché was immortalized, among other places, in Tijuana bibles, X-rated underground comics produced cheaply in Mexico for the American market. We’ll take a gander next week.