Neologisms: Formation Processes

an open dictionary

Do you know what a neologism is? Stemming from the Greek neo-, ’new‘ and logos, ‚word‘, the term describes just what is sounds like: a newly minted word or expression. Such new words are quite frequent in cutting-edge industries and new technology. They can also be found in more popular subcultures, where people are either expressing a common experience unique to their group or simply trying to differentiate themselves from other, more mainstream groups.

Of course, at some point they simply become part of the mainstream vocabulary or have been around so long that no one considers them new any more. When that happens they are no longer considered neologisms. Opinions differ on how long that might be. Neologisms tend to spread faster and faster these days, thanks to popular social media platforms.

Neologisms may be very intentionally created, in order to express a new idea or describe a new object. Other times how they come to be is hard to trace, as one may never know ahead of time what words might stick. There are a number of ways in which neologisms may emerge. Many of them are morphological processes involving (parts of) already existing words. Here are a few common methods, some of which you will find illustrated in the fun exercise around neologisms which emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Acronymtaking the first letter of each word in an expression to form a word, e.g. scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
Alphabetismtaking the first letter of each word in an expression, but not pronouncing it as a word, but actually saying the letters, e.g. VIP (very important person) or ER (emergency room)
Blendingtaking two words, clipping off part of at least one of the two words, and then combining the words, e.g. Brexit (British exit)
Borrowing or Loanwordimporting a word in its entirety from another language, e.g. cliché (French)
Calquecreating a new word by directly translating a word from another language, e.g. earworm (Germ. Ohrwurm)
Clippingclipping off part or parts of a word, e.g. flu (influenza)
Compoundingputting two words together, e.g. overshare
Foreclippingclipping off the initial letters or syllables of a word, e.g. tude (attitude)

For a bit more fun, go back to that exercise on the Corona neologisms and see if you can identify the processes which were used in each of the words. Then, share any other neologisms or formation processes you might have heard of that we haven’t addressed in the comments below.