Where do new words come from? How do you figure out their histories?
An etymology is the history of a linguistic form, such as a word; the same term is also used for the study
of word histories. A dictionary etymology tells us what is known of an English word before it became the word entered
in that dictionary. If the word was created in English, the etymology shows, to whatever extent is not already
obvious from the shape of the word, what materials were used to form it. If the word was borrowed into English,
the etymology traces the borrowing process backward from the point at which the word entered English to the
earliest records of the ancestral language. Where it is relevant, an etymology notes words from other languages that
are related ("akin") to the word in the dictionary entry, but that are not in the direct line of borrowing.
How New Words are Formed
An etymologist, a specialist in the study of etymology, must know a good deal about the history of English
and also about the relationships of sound and meaning and their changes over time that underline the reconstruction
of the Indo-European language family. Knowledge is also needed of the various processes by which words are created
within Modern English; the most important processes are listed below.
A majority of the words used in English today are of foreign origin. English still derives much of its vocabulary
from Latin and Greek, but we have also borrowed words from nearly all of the languages in Europe. In the modern
period of linguistic acquisitiveness, English has found vocabulary opportunities even farther afield. From the
period of the Renaissance voyages through the days when the sun never set upon the British Empire and up to
the present, a steady stream of new words has flowed into the language to match the new objects and
experiences English speakers have encountered all over the globe. Over 120 languages are on record as sources
of present-day English vocabulary.
Shortening or Clipping
Clipping (or truncation) is a process whereby an appreciable chunk of an existing word is omitted,
leaving what is sometimes called a stump word. When it is the end of a word that is lopped off, the process
is called back-clipping: thus examination was docked to create exam and gymnasium
was shortened to form gym. Less common in English are fore-clippings, in which the beginning of a
word is dropped: thus phone from telephone. Very occasionally, we see a sort of fore-and-aft
clipping, such as flu, from influenza.
A functional shift is the process by which an existing word or form comes to be used with another
grammatical function (often a different part of speech); an example of a functional shift would be the development
of the noun commute from the verb commute.
Back-formation occurs when a real or supposed affix (that is, a prefix or suffix) is removed from a word to
create a new one. For example, the original name for a type of fruit was cherise, but some thought that word
sounded plural, so they began to use what they believed to be a singular form, cherry, and a new word was
born. The creation of the the verb enthuse from the noun enthusiasm is also an example of a
A blend is a word made by combining other words or parts of words in such a way that they overlap (as
motel from motor plus hotel) or one is infixed into the other (as chortle from
snort plus chuckle the -ort- of the first being surrounded by the ch-...-le
of the second). The term blend is also sometimes used to describe words like brunch, from
breakfast plus lunch, in which pieces of the word are joined but there is no actual overlap. The
essential feature of a blend in either case is that there be no point at which you can break the word with everything
to the left of the breaking being a morpheme (a separately meaningful, conventionally combinable element) and
everything to the right being a morpheme, and with the meaning of the blend-word being a function of the meaning of
these morphemes. Thus, birdcage and psychohistory are not blends, but are instead compounds.
An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a phrase. Some acronymic terms still clearly show their
alphabetic origins (consider FBI), but others are pronounced like words instead of as a succession of
letter names: thus NASA and NATO are pronounced as two syllable words. If the form is written
lowercase, there is no longer any formal clue that the word began life as an acronym: thus radar ('radio
detecting and ranging'). Sometimes a form wavers between the two treatments: CAT scan pronounced either like
cat or C-A-T.
NOTE: No origin is more pleasing to the general reader than an acronymic one. Although acronymic etymologies are
perennially popular, many of them are based more in creative fancy than in fact. For an example of such an alleged
acronymic etymology, see the article on posh.
Transfer of Personal or Place Names
Over time, names of people, places, or things may become generalized vocabulary words. Thus did forsythia
develop from the name of botanist William Forsyth, silhouette from the name of Étienne de Silhouette, a
parsimonious French controller general of finances, and denim from serge de Nîmes (a fabric made
in Nîmes, France).
Imitation of Sounds
Words can also be created by onomatopoeia, the naming of things by a more or less exact reproduction of the
sound associated with it. Words such as buzz, hiss, guffaw, whiz, and
pop) are of imitative origin.
Folk etymology, also known as popular etymology, is the process whereby a word is altered so as to
resemble at least partially a more familiar word or words. Sometimes the process seems intended to "make sense of" a
borrowed foreign word using native resources: for example, the Late Latin febrigugia (a plant with medicinal
properties, etymologically 'fever expeller') was modified into English as feverfew.
Combining Word Elements
Also available to one who feels the need for a new word to name a new thing or express a new idea is the very
considerable store of prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms that already exist in English. Some of these are native
and others are borrowed from French, but the largest number have been taken directly from Latin or Greek, and they
have been combined in may different ways often without any special regard for matching two elements from the same
original language. The combination of these word elements has produced many scientific and technical terms of Modern
Literary and Creative Coinages
Once in a while, a word is created spontaneously out of the creative play of sheer imagination. Words such as
boondoggle and googol are examples of such creative coinages, but most such inventive brand-new
words do not gain sufficiently widespread use to gain dictionary entry unless their coiner is well known enough so
his or her writings are read, quoted, and imitated. British author Lewis Carroll was renowned for coinages such
as jabberwocky, galumph, and runcible, but most such new words are destined to pass in
and out of existence with very little notice from most users of English.
An etymologist tracing the history of a dictionary entry must review the etymologies at existing main entries and
prepare such etymologies as are required for the main entries being added to the new edition. In the course of the
former activity, adjustments must sometimes be made either to incorporate a useful piece of information that has
been previously overlooked or to review the account of the word's origin in light of new evidence. Such evidence
may be unearthed by the etymologist or may be the product of published research by other scholars. In writing new
etymologies, the etymologist must, of course, be alive to the possible languages from which a new term may have
been created or borrowed, and must be prepared to research and analyze a wide range of documented evidence and
published sources in tracing a word's history. The etymologist must sift theories, often-conflicting theories of
greater or lesser likelihood, and try to evaluate the evidence conservatively but fairly to arrive at the soundest
possible etymology that the available information permits.
When all attempts to provide a satisfactory etymology have failed, an etymologist may have to declare that a word's
origin is unknown. The label "origin unknown" in an etymology seldom means that the etymologist is unaware of various
speculations about the origin of a term, but instead usually means that no single theory conceived by the etymologist
or proposed by others is well enough backed by evidence to include in a serious work of reference, even when qualified
by "probably" or "perhaps."