The creation of new words (particularly in the English language) is, perhaps, a surprisingly consistent facet of history. I, for one, was not aware that newly-created words were something that was officially recognized. The evidence is available, though: the dictionary is being updated every time; there’s even a website called Urban Dictionary dedicated to “slang” words and phrases that are considered part of our culture’s vernacular. However, there is a difference between the ease of access and spreading of new words from just a few years ago to today. Thanks to the many advances in technology, a newly created word, phrase, acronym, or the like can travel from one end of America to the other in mere seconds. This blog post hopes to discuss the mechanizations of newly created words and the effect technology has on them.
Let’s start with the art of creating new words. There are multiple reasons behind making new words or combining already existing words together to create a new meaning: to inextricably link two or more terms together, for the sake of simplicity, and to give a name to new experiences or objects that didn’t exist before, according to Andrew Kaufman from The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/11/why-we-need-invent-new-words). The introduction of technology in particular meant a lot of new words were created to give meaning to the devices, programs, hardware, and other similar things involved. Cell phones, computers, blogs, and wifi were words that did not exist before the 1900s.
Even words that might initially sound ridiculous or have seemingly no sense can catch on, if they get popular enough. Author Andrew Clements wrote a children’s novel in 1996 titled Frindle after being inspired by discussing the origin of words to kids (http://www.andrewclements.com/books-frindle-faq1.html). In the book, a middle school boy learned that all the words in the dictionary had been invented by people and that the process was actually fairly simple, so he came up with the idea to start calling pens “frindles”. The silly-sounding word caught on in his class, then expanded to the school, to homes, to stores, to other towns and cities and states, until eventually enough people starting using it that by the end of the book, it had made its way into the dictionary. New words can only be officially recognized by English language organizations like the American Dialect Society and dictionary writers if they become well-known enough that much of the U.S. uses them. Technology facilitates this process exponentially. Social media connects people not just in all fifty states, but in every location in the world with access to sites like Facebook and Tumblr.
Of course, finding a new term for an already existing object is not the most common way words are invented. Often, words are created to shorten phrases and make what might be an entire sentence fit into just a few letters. Although not in English, take the word backpfeifengesicht, for instance. The German word that was used some time in the nineteenth century means “a face badly in need of a fist” (http://www.germany.info/Vertretung/usa/en/__pr/GIC/TWIG__WoW/2014/23-Backpfeifengesicht.html). The word is untranslatable in English, partly because we do not have a single word that means what backpfeifengesicht means. An English instance of this is dumpster fire, which was voted as 2016’s word of the year by the American Dialect Society; it means a situation that has been handled so poorly it has become a train wreck. The word itself became popularized by use of current social media despite having been tossed around by sports radio hosts about five years ago.
It is quite evident that technology has a very strong influence on the spread of new words. The process of creating a new word, which once took years, can now be accomplished in mere months, weeks, even days. Perhaps, in a short time, it would be shortened to mere hours. People are quick to pick up a word that seems to be popular among their peers; humans have a psychological need to feel a sense of belonginess. Technology makes the accessibility of new words easy: Twitter has a board showing the current trending hashtags; Tumblr posts can be reblogged thousands of times. New words can be viewed quite frequently and in a short span of time, based on its relevance to a situation or topic.
Of course, with the involvement of the still somewhat fresh Internet and social media sites, there arises arguments of whether a word is “real” or not, or whether it should be included in a renowned dictionary like Merriam-Webster, or whether it can be considered a part of English language at all. Counterarguments may consist of the fact that language is an ever-evolving societal function and that technology is merely another facet of it, and perhaps question who gets to choose what should be considered language or not. But there is no mistaking that, whether accepted or not, the digital world has begun to play a large role in the development of our current English language, and will undoubtedly continue to have a large influence over it. Though it should not be forgotten that the power belongs with us. As Andrew Clements said, “words only mean what we what we decide they mean”.