NEOLOGISM: How words do things with words

A version of this paper was delivered at the Global Art Forum at Art Dubai in March 2013. The abstract to which the author was invited to respond was: ‘Why must we make things up? Isn’t the world full of enough discourse and jargon already? What is the meaning of making more meanings? Are we bored of the words we’re using, or, is it just that reality’s gone further than the words we already have?’



Lexical Tags: surgery, toddlers, aphasia, John 1:1, Sūrat al-‘Alaq

The impulse to invent new words out of preexisting elements is a latent feature of language. A neologism (from Greek néo-, meaning ‘new’ and logos, meaning ‘speech, utterance’) is a blend of existing fragments to forge anew. I picture it as grafting inorganic matter to the organic. If it sticks, the inorganic is fused to, and almost imperceptible from, the organic. Should you tear your anterior cruciate ligament, for example, a replacement part from a juvenile pig or human cadaver may be used to reconstruct your knee. You will walk as before. Less streamlined and having acquired a prosthesis, a bionic patella. So it goes with neologism.

According to modern psychiatry, the use of words that have meaning only to the person using them is common in children. In adults, it can signal psychopathy, even schizophrenia, or it can be acquired through aphasia after a head injury. The personal disposition to create a new vocabulary is for the most part related to youth, severe mental affliction, or temporary impairment.


The neologistic toddler, not impaired, names anew and with childish abandon. She becomes through naming without common meaning. I imagine a fat, smiling statue of the Buddha, simultaneously babyish and wise. (Also see: retrogression to baby-talk in Finnegan’s Wake).


John 1:1: ‘In the beginning was the word.’ In the Qur’an, too, the command to submit was the first Revelation to be sent to the Prophet in Sūrat al-‘Alaq or ‘The Clot’: Iqra’ (‘read’). Al-’alaq is also a literal clot, the early stage of an embryo, that originary zygote that becomes a neologistic child.


Human invention itself appears to have no language: ‘eureka!’ and ‘abracadabra!’ are nonsense words. Yet invention has frequently been followed by an intonation of God. The pentagigatweet, or five billionth tweet ever broadcast via Twitter (sent by an out-of-work dot-com executive) read, ‘Oh Lord.’ That tweet brings to mind the first message ever sent electronically, in a telegraph from Baltimore to the US Capitol by Samuel Morse in 1844: ‘What hath God wrought.’



Histoire(s) du néologisme

Lexical Tags: novelty, tennis, nothing, cliché, stereotype

Pascal: ‘Let no one say I have said something new: the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, both partners use the same ball, but one of them has better aim.’

Lucretius: ‘Nothing can come out of nothing.’ (He said that two thousand years ago and it wasn’t original then either.)


Balzac: ‘The French language has accepted the new words of my predecessors. It will accept mine. Upstarts will become aristocrats in time.’


Every expression was once a teenager: what began as neologism eventually aged and was purloined into speech as cliché or stereotype.



How Words Do Things With Words

Lexical Tags: euphemism, substitution, war, miserabilism

Through euphemism and substitution, we are invited, commanded, and cajoled by politics to adopt substitutions for words currently populating our vocabularies.

Politics is perhaps singular in that it produces neologisms for neologisms.


It names and renames war stratagems:


‘kill list’ for ‘extra-judicial murder’

‘disposition matrix’ for ‘kill list.’


It names and renames war collateral:


‘enemy combatant’ for ‘prisoner of war’

‘unprivileged belligerent’ for ‘enemy combatant.’


It names and renames structures housing human beings:








It names and renames segregation systems:








(See also: the language of international miserabilism).


The will to reinvention is one of the central intellectual functions and legacies of modern politics.



Fugitive Technology

Lexical Tags: IT, teh, IDGAF, FFS, PTA, MOS, ads, poetry, sceptics

It is in the universe of informational technology and computing that one comes to grasp what malleable technology language itself is. New words endure far beyond virtual technologies that collapse. Netscape and AOL may have evaporated – eventually, Twitter will too – but the linguistic and even non-linguistic forms stay burning alive, like a desert phoenix enduring long beyond the burial of its civilisation.

The relationship between the idea and the language for that idea progresses like a dance; sometimes the language takes the lead and we are left with a novel word like ‘blog’ or ‘hyperlink’; sometimes the idea waltzes ahead with a reusable turn like ‘cloud’ or ‘thumbnail.’ Deliberate typos like ‘teh’ for ‘the’ proliferate. The entrance of visual language like emoticons (dispelling with words altogether) are here and multiplying.


One of the most opaque entities within the fugitive technology of language is the acronym. (The neologistic possibilities of the acronym alone could be subject for a whole other spiel.) It is a highly American linguistic pattern and arguably related to dark bellicose adventures such as the Cold War. Nowadays it is heavily inflected with the colloquialism of the internet: IDGAF, FFS, ILU, TTYS.


Some acronyms are just unfortunate: PTA covers both the Parent-Teacher Association and the Prevention of Terrorism Act; MOS is both Manual of Style and Military Occupational Specialty in the US Army. Acronyms come cheaply: buy one, get one free.


Unlike the self-conscious poet, the technologist, like his capitalist brothers, the ad man and the newsman, never has to flash his poetic license. In fact, the newsmen of the nineteenth century went far beyond the shy poets with such license to invent new lexicons. Even today, the New York Times retains the right to control and reject vocabulary in the common stream. It refuses to publish the word ‘tweet’ in articles, for example. We could invent our own term for this phenomenon: ‘terminology deniers’ or ‘neologosceptics.’


Pardon My French AKA If You’ll Excuse the Expression

Lexical Tags: xenoglottophobia, English!!1!, Portuguese, burquini

An anti-colonial and/or xenophobic neologistics: a xenoglottophobia. Ego-futurists in Russia who wrote entire poems in neologisms, especially to block foreign borrowings. The Arabisation of foreign words to avoid corrupting Asiatic influences. Francophile walls constructed against merciless invaders. Persian neologisms to avoid domination by the Arabic. In Portuguese, inadvertent elocutionary neologism like bangue bangue or Kingy Kongy.

None of this ever happens in English. When I talk about neologism I confess that I am really talking about the English language.


No academy owns or controls it, not even the Oxford English Dictionary. It is an open-source language, to the denial or delight of many, depending on your perspective.


There is a saying (I cannot determine whether it is an actual saying or something that just my father used to tell me) that Arabic is an ocean—that it captures incredible depths. It boasts a root system that is clear and precise in its exacting mathematical beauty.


English, on the other hand, skims the surface of language. It clings to elastic forms of artifice like Lycra to polyurethane. It is the kind of language that easily affords a mixed lexicon, absorbing and rearranging instead of re-anchoring and re-rooting. Think of a portmanteau like ‘burquini.’ If there were an artificial language built for hybridity and neologism it would look a lot like English.




Lexical Tags: jargon, academese, creative writing, soft power

A stunt word is a neologism created to produce a special effect, or to attract attention. Often such words are disposable, cyclically cropping up and dying off (gloatation, titterosity, scrumtrulescent, malamanteau, truthiness).

In the abstraction and formalisation of language, largely in institutionalised academia, the attention such gestures incur is usually negative. Academic jargon has the ability to adapt to new forms of syntax and grammar, but has not always done so for the better since so many academics employ voicelessness and eager disavowal of a speaker or subject.


The will to reinvention in the production of knowledge – I previously attributed it to modern politics – may not run the danger of an assassination kill list, but it has profound consequences.


For whom or what is a term like ‘creative writing’ invented, for example? What about ‘soft power’ – is there any such thing?



Lexical Husbandry

Lexical Tags: sharecropping, husbands, OED

In their purest form neologists are farmers. They tend to preexisting lexical items like a tenant farmer cultivates crops and weans animals on borrowed land. Husbandry is the primary learned skill of each sharecropper.


The word husband exists inside the word husbandry in a strange and opaque obsolescence that etymologists refer to as ‘disguised’ history.’ Husband did not come to mean ‘a man joined to a woman by marriage’ until the thirteenth century; in the eleventh it referred to the master or male head of a household. The Old Norse composition from where sbondi (householder) was borrowed would have disclosed far more transparent identifiers to speakers of Old English, for whom hūs + bondi denoted male ownership over house and land.


The Oxford English Dictionary etymology guide takes great measure to emphasise the role of guess, imprecision, overlap, and doubt in the formal lexicalisation of the word ‘husband’:


If we consider that language is something spoken by large numbers of individuals we can see that it will be impossible to ever pin down a precise moment when change occurred, because the relevant changes in word form and word meaning will not have occurred for all speakers at the same time.


Not even the OED, revered for the depth and sharpness of its linguistic histories, can claim lordly ownership.



Language is an Anarchist 

Lexical Tags: loan words, debt, capitalism, disruption

The dark side of neologism – the headache of innovation – is rarely measured.

Neologism is, according to Walter Redfern, ‘the linguistic equivalent of capitalism: [it] too capitalise[s] on resources and fructif[ies] them.’


Yet unlike capitalism, language cancels all debts.


There is no interest rate on loan words. No police to protect property, except perhaps for zealous copyright holders and executive brand managers.


In the right hands neologism can act as outright disruption of the liberal economic order. The Spanish people appropriated the term ‘austerity’ from the International Monetary Fund and used it to illuminate a condition. To ‘occupy’ is cyclically infused with renewed energy and purpose as a positive strategy to confront power.


Despite capitalism’s insistence, we do not have endless resources. The philological economy, however, subject to primordial rules beyond the grasp of a single monarchy or republic, is nearly limitless.



Post Scriptum: So Real It’s Hyperreal

Lexical Tags: art, not-art      

Contemporary art has to contend with the phenomenon of the hyperreal, meaning reality is constantly trumping us with its multivalent realness. Reality is simulated as never before – simulated realities mushroom as content, not merely form – so new terms for what was thought to be adequately understood are employed as a mass survival mechanism.

In ‘Role Reversal’ American poet Elaine Equi compares art in the age of Stendahl and Flaubert with art in the age of the hyperreal:


Once reality was dumb and brutish—

in need of art for elevation. 

But it’s changed—

grown baroque and multifaceted.

Today we no longer take reality for granted.

Now art is the simpleton.


Jean-Luc Godard’s monologue in the first volume of Histoire du cinéma affirms this too, claiming that the cinema – the eighth of the Seven Arts, and hence the most contemporary major art form – ‘always wanted to be realer than real life’.


The hyperreal is the suspicion that ordinary life is no longer fixed, stable, non-fictional, or real, simply because it is so real. This is exactly where the division between art and politics lies – and there is a division. Both are concerned with artifice and construction, but only one uses its covert nature to compel, force, bully, and intimidate.


As long as there are humans to do sense-making, we will always try to make new sense under the illusion – perhaps it is a necessary illusion? – that this word, this new word, will help. Despite the thinness, inadequacy, and dissatisfying essence of modern language, etymological and genealogical obsessions carry on. Maybe this time, we tell ourselves, we will be able to, in defining life, somehow contain it.






is a writer and filmmaker, and has contributed poetry, essays, critical writing, and solo/collaborative videos and films to a variety of venues. She writes the blog South/South and is editor-at-large at The New Inquiry. She currently teaches at Harvard University.




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