Ever been brainjacked? Or Breitbarted? Perhaps you’re a kangatarian or a newpreneur. If not, you can still be a wordnik. Come with us as we peek into the notebook of lexicographer Erin McKean in Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook, her revealing look at a torrent of new words and phrases—in science, politics, social life—that reveal our changing societies. It’s a surprising window on our world. We caught up with McKean recently, in the midst of her linguistic sleuthing.
Your work will often focus on big ideas that have been encapsulated in a single word. With so many new ideas, how do you decide what to include?
I’m always looking for words that are striking and interesting. Words are like houses for ideas, and well-designed, beautiful words are easier for ideas to live in. A lot of the words have to do with science and technology, which I’m always interested in. Scientists and engineers often create great new words for their discoveries and innovations, because they’re (in effect) naming their babies. I also like new words that are made from recycled parts of other words, especially ones that create new suffixes, such as “bustaurant” (from “bus” plus “-taurant,” creating a new suffix from the end of “restaurant”).
Isn’t our language rich enough already? Why are new words needed?
Asking why English needs more words is like asking why we need new novels or new fashions. On a purely practical level, we don’t. We could all read what’s already published and wear the same styles for the rest of our lives. But people like novelty and new words for new things satisfies that human urge.
Any favorite new words?
Every day I have a new favorite word. Sometimes they’re really new (like “plussies,” for users of Google+, Google’s new social network) and sometimes they’re very old words that are just new to me, such as “awald,” an old word that means “Lying helplessly on the back: said of a sheep when unable, through sickness or fatness, to get up.”
Do certain languages have a propensity to invent new words?
I don’t know enough about other languages to speak with any authority on how generative they are, but English is productive enough to keep me pretty busy! And of course, since so many new things and ideas are created (or disseminated) by English-speaking people, often English gets there first, and other languages assimilate the English term for whatever the new thing is.
Has the number of new words increased recently?
It’s hard to say. It is true that we have more tools now to track new words. More and more text is either born digital or is being digitized (thanks Brewster!). There is Twitter, various status messages, and so on, which is the closest we can get to eavesdropping on conversations.
What’s the richest source for new words?
Anyplace where there’s innovation going on will throw off new words alongside new ideas, but those new words have to make it to a wider audience to really enter the language, which is why journalists (either traditional media or bloggers) are the best source for wordhunters to mine. When journalists have to report on new things, new words are just part of what has to be explained.
Have you ever invented a new word?
I’ve never tried to invent a word. It didn’t seem fair. But through my dress blog I did inadvertently create the word “Duro,” referring to a kind of kimono-style dress with contrasting fabric bands, similar to styles created by the designer Duro Olowu. It’s not widely used outside a few sewing enthusiasts, but it’s used there! I wrote about this for the The Boston Globe.
Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook is part of the TED Books series. It is available at Amazon for the Kindle and all platforms that use Kindle Reader apps (the Mac, PC, and Android, among them), as well as at Apple’s iBookstore. Be sure to also check out McKean’s enthusiastic TEDTalk.