How words are invented

We had an interesting discussion about the post a few days ago about how the blind Puritan poet John Milton contributed more new words to the English language than anyone else.  Some people asked questions along the line of “how come he can make up new words and I can’t?”  Or “how come he can use words as different parts of speech and my mean old English teacher marked me down every time I tried it?”  It was also observed that new words are entering the English language all the time.  I realized that the process of coming up with new words is not generally understood.  So I will put on my English professor hat and explain. . . .

First of all, there needs to be a need for a new word, a “semantic space” in the language that needs to be filled.  Let’s use some of Milton’s words as examples.  His day, like ours, had a lot of “worship wars” in the Church of England.  The word “liturgy” existed.  But, earlier, that was pretty much the only kind of worship there was.  There was a need for an adjectival form of that word to distinguish that type of worship from the alternatives.  So Milton turned the existing noun into an adjective by adding a Latin adjectival ending.  Hence a new word that we use today in our own worship wars:  “liturgical.”

An even better, because more poetic, example:  The new Copernican cosmology meant that the earth and the planets spin around in a vast void.  In Paradise Lost, Milton needed to write about Satan flying to earth.  Dante in the Middle Ages had imagined Hell as existing in the center of the earth.  Milton imagines it more like another planet.  The word “space” existed to refer to expanse, area, extent.  Milton took that word and made it refer to the realm beyond earth’s atmosphere.  Satan flew through “space.”  What great poetry!  Imagine hearing that poetic image for the first time.  But now we have a new word, one that names something that was nameless before.

This process still continues.  New inventions require new words.  Like Milton, we to this day tend to go back to the classical languages for help in coining them.   “Computer” is from the Latin.  “Telephone” and “Television” are from the Greek.  (This is why it is so helpful to learn Latin.  You can decode just about any English “hard word.”) “Internet” combines a venerable English word “net,” associated with the already metaphorical “network,” to describe poetically a complex set of interconnections.   Then was added the Latin preposition “inter.”  Voila.  We have a new word.  “Facebook” combines two existing words into a new one.  “Google” takes a whimsical name for a really big number for a company, and then it was morphed into a verb.

It isn’t always clear who the mute inglorious Miltons were (name that allusion) who first came up with the new words that come into existence today.  But the process goes back to Adam:  God brought creatures to Adam, whereupon he named them.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin

    Is “facebook” a new word, or a new product? True, I think the product name “google” has become a new word meaning “to research via internet search,” more or less, but what does “facebook” mean as a word besides identifying the product?

    That raises the interesting while unimportant point of influence on language. Back in the day–Milton’s day, that is–language usage was influenced or at least documented by literature. In recent generations, language has been heavily influenced by advertising. Companies go to great length to get their product “name recognition,” and sometimes the product name becomes the word. (Any adhesive bandage is a “band-aid.” The whole family of desserts with gelatin are “Jell-o.”) Presently, language is influenced by “viral” usage, whether or not it is correct. (Is “lol” a new word?)

    Simply stated, has the printed dictionary run its course? Are the rules of language seen as important in a streaming world? What difference does it make to know of proper usage if I understand what is being said? (Culturally, I mean.)

    This, as tODD points out, may influence scrabble tournaments everywhere. Seriously, though, is there a cultural dimension in play that rejects (or despises) the authority of linguistics?

  • Dan Kempin

    Is “facebook” a new word, or a new product? True, I think the product name “google” has become a new word meaning “to research via internet search,” more or less, but what does “facebook” mean as a word besides identifying the product?

    That raises the interesting while unimportant point of influence on language. Back in the day–Milton’s day, that is–language usage was influenced or at least documented by literature. In recent generations, language has been heavily influenced by advertising. Companies go to great length to get their product “name recognition,” and sometimes the product name becomes the word. (Any adhesive bandage is a “band-aid.” The whole family of desserts with gelatin are “Jell-o.”) Presently, language is influenced by “viral” usage, whether or not it is correct. (Is “lol” a new word?)

    Simply stated, has the printed dictionary run its course? Are the rules of language seen as important in a streaming world? What difference does it make to know of proper usage if I understand what is being said? (Culturally, I mean.)

    This, as tODD points out, may influence scrabble tournaments everywhere. Seriously, though, is there a cultural dimension in play that rejects (or despises) the authority of linguistics?

  • Dan Kempin

    (I suppose I should have said, “Simply posed” rather than “Simply stated” in the paragraph above, since it was a question. But what difference does it make. You know what I meant.)

    (Irony intended)

  • Dan Kempin

    (I suppose I should have said, “Simply posed” rather than “Simply stated” in the paragraph above, since it was a question. But what difference does it make. You know what I meant.)

    (Irony intended)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Good point about Facebook, Dan. Has anyone heard the word used as a verb, as in “I’m going to facebook that”? The change from a brand-name noun to a verb would be a new word. Same with Google when people started to say “I’m going to google that,” or, “I googled you.”

    Brand-names becoming the word for the product is indeed another way of getting new words, as linguists have noted. You are right that this is from the world of advertising, though it’s perhaps better thought of as the world of business. But the key is whether whoever coined a new word had access to a large audience that could, in turn, pick up the word and use it themselves. So words writers use can enter the language if the works are widely read. But this can also happen when writers (not necessarily professional writers) use other media, such as advertising and now the internet.

    As for the authority of linguistics, linguistics has no authority. It simply describes language empirically. Grammatical rules, punctuation conventions, and the like are not the province of the science of linguistics.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Good point about Facebook, Dan. Has anyone heard the word used as a verb, as in “I’m going to facebook that”? The change from a brand-name noun to a verb would be a new word. Same with Google when people started to say “I’m going to google that,” or, “I googled you.”

    Brand-names becoming the word for the product is indeed another way of getting new words, as linguists have noted. You are right that this is from the world of advertising, though it’s perhaps better thought of as the world of business. But the key is whether whoever coined a new word had access to a large audience that could, in turn, pick up the word and use it themselves. So words writers use can enter the language if the works are widely read. But this can also happen when writers (not necessarily professional writers) use other media, such as advertising and now the internet.

    As for the authority of linguistics, linguistics has no authority. It simply describes language empirically. Grammatical rules, punctuation conventions, and the like are not the province of the science of linguistics.

  • Booklover

    “how come he can make up new words and I can’t?” Or “how come he can use words as different parts of speech and my mean old English teacher marked me down every time I tried it?”

    I know it is not the province of the science of linguistics, but who in the world thought of the coupling “how come”??????

  • Booklover

    “how come he can make up new words and I can’t?” Or “how come he can use words as different parts of speech and my mean old English teacher marked me down every time I tried it?”

    I know it is not the province of the science of linguistics, but who in the world thought of the coupling “how come”??????

  • Tom Hering

    “How come” = “how did it come to be that …”

  • Tom Hering

    “How come” = “how did it come to be that …”

  • Booklover

    To answer my own question, perhaps it’s a shortened version of “how did it come about that” ??

  • Booklover

    To answer my own question, perhaps it’s a shortened version of “how did it come about that” ??

  • Booklover

    Ditto, Tom! :-) We posted at the same time.

  • Booklover

    Ditto, Tom! :-) We posted at the same time.

  • Tom Hering

    “We posted at the same time.”

    I wonder how come? ;-)

  • Tom Hering

    “We posted at the same time.”

    I wonder how come? ;-)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Great question, Booklover! Language is a funny thing, on many levels!
    Apparently that colloquialism has an ancient lineage going back to the Middle Ages: “how comes it. . . ” Cf. “And it came to pass. . .”
    But here is an article I found on the specific phrase, which seems to be American: http://www.word-detective.com/2008/01/16/how-come/

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Great question, Booklover! Language is a funny thing, on many levels!
    Apparently that colloquialism has an ancient lineage going back to the Middle Ages: “how comes it. . . ” Cf. “And it came to pass. . .”
    But here is an article I found on the specific phrase, which seems to be American: http://www.word-detective.com/2008/01/16/how-come/

  • Tom Hering

    Highly recommended: A Way With Words.

  • Tom Hering

    Highly recommended: A Way With Words.

  • Arfies

    Of course there will be new words, and a need for them. I am bothered more by the rape of long-accepted word usage. For example: “Beg the question” was commonly understood to mean “avoid answering the question at hand.” Most of the time these days it is used in places where “raise the question” is the intended meaning. This is a result, I think, of plain ignorance, and could be the source of confusion. Perhaps I’m just being too pedantic. I even cringe when I hear “terrorists” pronounced in news broadcasts as “terrists.”

  • Arfies

    Of course there will be new words, and a need for them. I am bothered more by the rape of long-accepted word usage. For example: “Beg the question” was commonly understood to mean “avoid answering the question at hand.” Most of the time these days it is used in places where “raise the question” is the intended meaning. This is a result, I think, of plain ignorance, and could be the source of confusion. Perhaps I’m just being too pedantic. I even cringe when I hear “terrorists” pronounced in news broadcasts as “terrists.”

  • Tom Hering

    I cringe at extremely overused phrases. If I hear “at the end of the day” one more time I’m going postal (a phrase that fell out of common usage as incidents of what it refers to declined).

  • Tom Hering

    I cringe at extremely overused phrases. If I hear “at the end of the day” one more time I’m going postal (a phrase that fell out of common usage as incidents of what it refers to declined).

  • Dan Kempin

    Dr. Veith, #3,

    A good clarification about linguistics as opposed to grammar.

    Still, the most compelling point in your post is the connection to the evolution of language and Adam’s task of “giving names.” I had never really reflected on that event beyond marvelling at the cerebral capacity of Adam to name and retain everyliving creature, but I wonder to what extent that relates to the present. Why do we take such delight in coining a new phrase? I suppose it could be said that words are a gift from God that is particular to man, and while God’s words existed before, man is given “creative” power with them.

    This, also, would lead to a consideration of the curse of Babel. Man was scattered over the face of the earth simply by the confusion of language.

    Hmm. Interesting. Now I will be thinking of this all day.

  • Dan Kempin

    Dr. Veith, #3,

    A good clarification about linguistics as opposed to grammar.

    Still, the most compelling point in your post is the connection to the evolution of language and Adam’s task of “giving names.” I had never really reflected on that event beyond marvelling at the cerebral capacity of Adam to name and retain everyliving creature, but I wonder to what extent that relates to the present. Why do we take such delight in coining a new phrase? I suppose it could be said that words are a gift from God that is particular to man, and while God’s words existed before, man is given “creative” power with them.

    This, also, would lead to a consideration of the curse of Babel. Man was scattered over the face of the earth simply by the confusion of language.

    Hmm. Interesting. Now I will be thinking of this all day.

  • Dan Kempin

    Btw, is the time stamp off on the blog? My post reads an hour later than my clock, and I am in the eastern time zone . . .

  • Dan Kempin

    Btw, is the time stamp off on the blog? My post reads an hour later than my clock, and I am in the eastern time zone . . .

  • Tom Hering

    Mine always read two hours ahead. I’m Central Standard Time. Which would make the blog Atlantic Standard Time (Canada?).

  • Tom Hering

    Mine always read two hours ahead. I’m Central Standard Time. Which would make the blog Atlantic Standard Time (Canada?).

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well to answer Veith’s question yes Facebook is often used as a verb, though more often a participle, as in I’m facebooking. Tends to mean to communicate via facebook, not necessarily to look up someone as you would do on google.
    As for the post, the idea of a need being there before a new word can be accepted is interesting. The English dictionary is quite large these days, it is amazing there would ever be an objective need for a new word. Obviously things like a computer necessitate that. But then perhaps a person just doesn’t want to use an old archaic term, and so invents a new one where no real strict need exists.
    Perhaps that is why “postal” isn’t as common these days. For a time it spoke volumes and invoked recent events so carried new meaning that going crazy or nuts did not, and possibly still don’t carry. And then terms are used in different ways in different areas.
    But I’m not sure that English grammar has always been about explaining empirical realities concerning the language. That would be nice if it were true. But often it has been an attempt by the elites to straitjacket the language with Romanizing tendencies. That is trying to apply the principles of Latin grammar on a language that is essentially Germanic. And at times even applying the rules of mathematics to the language and hence dropping the double negative, though in other languages this is just seen as being emphatic, which it also is in English. The results of such attempts are not always positive.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Well to answer Veith’s question yes Facebook is often used as a verb, though more often a participle, as in I’m facebooking. Tends to mean to communicate via facebook, not necessarily to look up someone as you would do on google.
    As for the post, the idea of a need being there before a new word can be accepted is interesting. The English dictionary is quite large these days, it is amazing there would ever be an objective need for a new word. Obviously things like a computer necessitate that. But then perhaps a person just doesn’t want to use an old archaic term, and so invents a new one where no real strict need exists.
    Perhaps that is why “postal” isn’t as common these days. For a time it spoke volumes and invoked recent events so carried new meaning that going crazy or nuts did not, and possibly still don’t carry. And then terms are used in different ways in different areas.
    But I’m not sure that English grammar has always been about explaining empirical realities concerning the language. That would be nice if it were true. But often it has been an attempt by the elites to straitjacket the language with Romanizing tendencies. That is trying to apply the principles of Latin grammar on a language that is essentially Germanic. And at times even applying the rules of mathematics to the language and hence dropping the double negative, though in other languages this is just seen as being emphatic, which it also is in English. The results of such attempts are not always positive.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    The first time I’d heard of Google as a search engine, I assumed it was the verb form of the notion of looking at something with “googley eyes” ( you can Google that).
    Sort of like ogle, but a little different, somehow.

    The name for the really large number (10^100) is “Googol.”

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    The first time I’d heard of Google as a search engine, I assumed it was the verb form of the notion of looking at something with “googley eyes” ( you can Google that).
    Sort of like ogle, but a little different, somehow.

    The name for the really large number (10^100) is “Googol.”

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Mike, if there was a like button on this blog like there is on Facebook, I’d like your comment. I had the same thought when I first saw google. But probably due to my habit of ogling. I know I shouldn’t, but its a Romans 7 thing for me.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Mike, if there was a like button on this blog like there is on Facebook, I’d like your comment. I had the same thought when I first saw google. But probably due to my habit of ogling. I know I shouldn’t, but its a Romans 7 thing for me.

  • EGK

    Mike’s comment leads us back to the old comic strip ‘Barney Google,” which may indirectly have influenced the term, and its verbing, as well.

  • EGK

    Mike’s comment leads us back to the old comic strip ‘Barney Google,” which may indirectly have influenced the term, and its verbing, as well.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    But, alas. The Wikipedia page for Google says the name came from a misspelling of Googol. Oh well. There are some things I know that just aren’t so, I guess.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    But, alas. The Wikipedia page for Google says the name came from a misspelling of Googol. Oh well. There are some things I know that just aren’t so, I guess.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    “English grammar” has its rules and conventions. They can be violated, as has been said, due to ignorance or perhaps carelessness. These mistakes call attention to themselves and are distracting for those who know the language. (Of course, there are also regional and social dialects that have features–such as “ain’t” and “you’uns”– that are not standard usage; that is, the standard that all English speakers of whatever dialect can understand with no negative connotations.)

    Linguistics, though, is the science of language. As such, it studies language empirically in all of its quirks, including things like nonstandard usages and regional dialects.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    “English grammar” has its rules and conventions. They can be violated, as has been said, due to ignorance or perhaps carelessness. These mistakes call attention to themselves and are distracting for those who know the language. (Of course, there are also regional and social dialects that have features–such as “ain’t” and “you’uns”– that are not standard usage; that is, the standard that all English speakers of whatever dialect can understand with no negative connotations.)

    Linguistics, though, is the science of language. As such, it studies language empirically in all of its quirks, including things like nonstandard usages and regional dialects.

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