Morphing Words Just the Way of the World-Not Just the Web

Susan Hall

Every day, it seems, we encounter strange new words on the Web.
Twiller? That sounds like Elmer Fudd referring to a certain Michael Jackson album.
Greenlashing? Oh, that's from a savage fight in the back yard with blackberry vines.
Deface? Yeah, as opposed to de back.


It seems new words are spreading faster than kudzu in the South, though Grant Barrett, dictionary editor and co-host of the public radio program "A Way with Words" says it's hard to say that's so. The Web certainly makes new words easier to find, though, as he notes by tracking them in The Double-Tongued Dictionary.


Everybody Does It


Barrett says everybody makes up new words, not just the young and "cool." The young, he says, are fascinated with language because it all seems new to them, but the phenomenon is hardly new. Naomi S. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, agrees, with ample examples.


"There was a verb, Hooverized, back in Herbert Hoover's day, which was to economize, particularly in the use of food, because this was a country that didn't have any money at the time. We had Lincolnesque, which meant to have quiet, calm good judgment. And we had Clintonesque, which meant something very different," she said with a laugh.


Nouns become adjectives or verbs. They get prefixes, suffixes and are used in all kinds of ways.


Explains Baron:

"... What's going on now is that something is hitting us anew. Particularly if it's technology related, we tend to put it in a separate box in our minds and say, 'Oh, it's those technology freaks again' as opposed to saying, 'We do this in language. It's normal.'"


So the Web log becomes blog, a noun, and blogged, a verb, despite the protests of a recent reader of IT Business Edge blogger Ann All. (See, it's an adjective, too.)
It becomes vlog, a video log;
Splog, a fake blog created to raise a site's ranking in a search engine;
Clog, a daily news site at the University of California;
And moblog, a word that's big in Europe to mean blogging on a cell phone, but not so popular in the United States, according to Baron.




In his book "Predicting New Words," Allan Metcalf notes that thousands of words are made up every day, though at the end of a year, only a few hundred remain. Their chances of surviving longer continue to diminish as time passes. In fact, he says, it takes about two generations - 40 years or so - to really determine whether a word will stick.


He tells the story that around 1938, mathematician Edward Kasner asked his 9-year-old nephew what to call a number made up of one followed by 100 zeroes. The kid, searching for a silly word, came up with "googol" and an even larger number became "googolplex." Now the misspelled versions of those made-up words loom large in the online world. Google has become so ingrained in the language that it's used as a verb requiring no explanation. They're even used to define other words. Take "narcisurfing," which means to google yourself.


The tech industry creates many new words as it creates new things. After all, what are you going to call it?


IT Business Edge's Loraine Lawson wrote about such a need to fill a word gap when referring to a style of architecture that uses Web services and usually some middleware. She wrote:


"Many people call it [service-oriented architecture], but it's actually not ... It's tricky, though, because while it isn't technically SOA, theoretically it could be used to build SOA, if it were loosely coupled. But it's usually not and, as it stands, this widely deployed approach has no name. Gartner's actually looking at how to name and classify it."


But say Gartner comes up with a name for it and declares that word the "official" name. If it goes to a dictionary editor to have it put in the dictionary, it will meet some resistance.


Merriam-Webster President John Morse explained that when he announced the gamers' jubilant cry "w00t" (with zeroes) the Merriam-Webster 2007 Word of the Year. To be included in the dictionary, he said, a word must first be widely used and require no further explanation. So good luck, Gartner, with your architecture word.


"W00t" didn't meet the criteria, according to Metcalf, an English professor who's also executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. He's quoted in an Associated Press story as saying, "It's amusing, but it's limited to a small community and unlikely to spread and unlikely to last."

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