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Ministry of Education.

The Word: Creating New Words

New words are being made up all the time. Some might be used by one person on one occasion, never to be heard again; others seem to catch on, like yuppie or sound bite, and they spread very quickly throughout the English-speaking world.

It is very rare to find words invented out of nothing. Even computer-generated words like Teflon are not very common; they will also still follow the sound pattern of English. If you had to invent a name for a new oven cleaner, it would not be Bsog.

There are three common ways of creating new words.

  1. Compounding

    When two free morphemes are joined together to make a new word, the result is called a compound word. The most common way of compounding is to join a noun with a noun:

      toothbrush, car park, tablecloth, chairperson, lawnmower, teatowel, ladybird, bedroom.

    New Zealand English has many examples of compound words:

      stock route, woodshed, cattleyard, watersider, solo parent, playlunch, chilly bin, lamb's fry, crib-wall, state house, kitset, tarseal.

    Compound words may be written as two separate words (gold rush), or hyphenated (gold-rush), or combined as one word (goldrush). The written form is a matter of convention; the pronunciation and stress pattern are exactly the same.

    In everyday speech, we can easily create compound words as we need them, although these will not necessarily be understood outside a specific context.

      This is a Michael Jackson-free zone.
    Bring me the rabbit plate, please. (a familiar plate with a picture of a rabbit on it)
  2. Conversion

    Conversion is the process whereby a word in one word class is converted into another word class without any change to the shape of the word. It is very common in English.

      The policeman eyeballed the protester.

    Here a noun (an eyeball) has been converted into a verb (to eyeball).

    The American psycholinguist Eve Clark gives examples of very young children creating new words by conversion.

      He's keying the door. (from a six-year-old watching someone opening a door with a key)
    Is it all needled? (from a three-year-old watching some trousers being mended)
    Will you nut these? (from a six-year-old asking to have some walnuts cracked)

    There are many more nouns in English than verbs, so it is common to find nouns converted into verbs.

    Some New Zealand examples include:

      to twink something out;
    to Xerox some copies;
    to bach for a while;
    to dag the sheep;
    to skite about something.
  3. Affixation

      Those biscuits are very more-ish.
    The whole set-up was Mickey Mouse-ish.

    Adding derivational affixes - both prefixes and suffixes — is the most common way of creating new words in English. We can do this easily in casual speech.

      This shirt is unironable.
    That skirt could be turn-aboutable.

    This does not mean that such a word will catch on and become generally used, though sometimes this can happen.

    One of the most common suffixes is -ness, which is added to adjectives to turn them into nouns: happiness, carefulness, goodness, matter-of-factness.

    Suffixes are added to the main lexical word classes - noun, verb, adjective, adverb. It is very uncommon to find them added to grammatical words:

      * me+able, * that+ish, * about+ness.

    Each word class has its own characteristic suffixes.

      Noun -> adjective + al, such as national, regional, accidental.
    Verb -> adjective + able, such as drinkable, likeable, respectable.

    Some words are able to gather more than one morpheme attachment.

      reason + able + ness
    inter + national + is + ation

Other methods of creating new words

  • Clipping (reducing longer forms to one or two syllables): flu (influenza), bach (bachelor's shack), pav (pavlova), beaut (beauty), super (superannuation or superphosphate), Nat (National Party member), op shop (opportunity shop).
  • Blending (blending two words together, using only part of either one or both of them): motel (motor + hotel), smog (smoke + fog), breathalyser (breath + analyser), workaholic (work + alcoholic), telecast (television + broadcast), Rogernomics (Roger [Douglas's] economics), cashgora (cashmere + angora).
  • Acronym (forming a word from the initial letters of a string of words).

    Some are given the pronunciation of a normal word:

      ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps)
    HART (Halt All Racist Tours)
    CHE (Crown Health Enterprise)
    DOC (Department of Conservation).

    Some are pronounced letter by letter:

      BYO (Bring Your Own)
    DPB (Domestic Purposes Benefit)
    GST (Goods and Services Tax).

Summary of Terms

morpheme conversion
bound and free morpheme affixation
prefix, stem, suffix clipping
inflection and derivation blending
compounding acronym
compound word  

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Published on: 07 May 2009