[Editor’s Note: Seattle author Christopher Johnson, aka The Name Inspector, shares an excerpt from his newly-released book, Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, with GeekWire. In this chapter, Coin a New Word, Johnson discusses the origins of a number of high-tech names, from Google and Bing to Fandango and Jobster. The book, published by W.W. Norton & Company, is available on Amazon.com and at The Elliott Bay Book Company].
In 2007, at PodCamp Pittsburgh 2, a social media “unconference,” some geeks were sitting around discussing web technology— and going off on tangents. According to Andy Quayle, one of the participants, “We were talking about different meats and international types of bacon and were receiving messages on our mobile devices and eventually the two mixed.” A new word was born: bacn, which the group defined as ‘email you want—but not right now.’ Bacn refers to the email we sign up to receive— notifications from Facebook, beta announcements from startups, etc.—and never get around to reading. Bacn is spam’s tastier cousin.
Being geeks, these neologists—that is, creators of neologisms, or new words—made a website to promote their word and asked bloggers to write about it. Their promotional efforts paid off. Bacn became a story. Not everyone liked the new word. Some commenters on the Bacn website pointed out that bacon, the food, is simply too delicious to serve as a good metaphor for email you never get around to reading. But the story of Bacn spread. It was covered by CNET, InformationWeek, New Scientist magazine, National Public Radio, Wired magazine, and even People magazine.
Bacn was coined to attract attention, communicate instantly, and be remembered and repeated. It worked. Notice the big story wasn’t that people sign up to receive email and then don’t read it. The story was that someone had come up with a funny, catchy name for the common phenomenon that makes us see it in an interesting light. Neologisms can be among the most powerful of micromessages.
Coined words come in many varieties. There are political epithets like Defeatocrat; terms for new technologies and cultural phenomena like podcast, greenwash, and of course bacn; proprietary names for companies and products, such as Skype, Technorati, Wii, and more.
Almost all new words, from tech company names to political insults, result from a handful of processes familiar to linguists. Most of these processes are green: they reuse or recycle existing words. Here are seven common ways to build a new word:
1. Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
2. Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
3. Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
4. Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
5. Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
6. Make an analogy or play on words (Farecast, podcast)
7. Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)
Making up a new word doesn’t have to mean creating a new sound; it can also mean putting an existing sound to new use.
People often don’t think of these as neologisms, but the end result is essentially a new word. Remember, a word isn’t just a sound or a handful of letters; what makes it interesting, what makes it a word, is that it has a meaning. When people use the word word, they sort of vacillate between meaning just the spoken and written form on the one hand, and the form plus the meaning on the other. For this reason, lexical semanticists—linguists who really take words seriously—don’t even find the word word very useful. They use different terms when they’re talking about the form alone and when they’re talking about the form plus its meaning.
To put a special mark of ownership on a repurposed word, you can respell it. Respelling words serves some technical functions: as we saw in the last chapter, it makes them easier to trademark (as in Rice Krispies, Cheez Whiz, and Krazy Glue), it often creates a unique keyword to increase search engine visibility (as in Squidoo), and it sometimes makes it possible to acquire a meaningful “.com” domain (as in Topix, a localized news service). But respelling comes at a cost: you run the risk of seeming stupid or cheesy, or being confusing.
One of the best respelling techniques eliminates letters that aren’t necessary for pronunciation. This approach achieves spelling economy, a desirable quality in a name. Flickr, for example, eliminates the e in the common -er ending. Eliminating letters that are not pronounced is a natural move, and one that children often do. At the end of his kindergarten year, my son Tobias unwittingly coined a Web 2.0 name when he described himself in a written report as “organisd.”
Reusing a word—that is, giving it a new meaning—can change it forever in people’s minds. Spam, once a brand name for a humble canned meat product, provides a perfect example. Recycling words—recombining them into new, larger units, sometimes breaking them down into their component pieces first—offers almost limitless possibilities for new coinages.
Coining words is an English literary tradition. William Shakespeare was an avid neologist. Some words that we still use today, and many others that we don’t, made their first appearance in one of his plays. Shakespeare’s interest in new words was poetic rather than informational, however; he strove less to name new ideas than to express old ones so that they fit the cadences of his characters’ voices. The poetic use of neologism goes back even further in the history of our language. Old English epic poems such as Beowulf contained numerous kennings, fanciful compounds that replaced simple nouns with sometimes riddlelike descriptions. For example, a ship might be described as a “sea-steed,” or blood as “slaughter-dew.”
Words coined for special occasions without any concern for their permanence are called nonce words. Perhaps one of the best known coiners of English nonce words is Lewis Carroll. Many people have encountered his nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky,” which appears in the book Through the Looking Glass and is filled with words of Carroll’s invention:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice the meaning of part of this poem:
Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed into one word.
He also explains that mimsy is a blend of miserable and flimsy. We now have other, less literary reasons to create new words.
They help us keep pace with the rapid rate of change in science, technology, business, and society. Neologism is such a salient fea- ture of tech-obsessed American culture that there’s a feature in Wired magazine devoted to it. The web makes tracking new words much easier than it was in the past. Several websites, such as Word Spy, are devoted solely to spotting and documenting neologisms.
Good neologisms sound fresh and perfectly natural at the same time. Naturalness results from respecting the normal cadences of speech and the sounds of the words used, as well as the meanings and grammatical functions of the component parts. Biznik, the name of a social network for independent businesspeople, is a perfect use of the Yiddish-derived suffix -nik, which attaches to nouns and describes people who have an affinity for what the noun names (beatnik, peacenik).
It’s surprising how many new words are poorly constructed. The old IBM computer name Aptiva sounds odd if you think of it as consisting of the word apt and the suffix -ive with a Latinate vowel at the end. The -ive suffix attaches to verbs to make adjectives (creative from create, divisive from divide, etc.), but apt is already an adjective, so Aptiva just seems a little off.
Neologism is the ultimate in microstyle, because it involves poking around under the hood of words and tinkering with their internal structure. Even if you just stick two words together to make a compound, as in YouTube, you create a word-internal syllable boundary, which can be a sticking point in pronunciation. But what really calls for some finesse with verbal mechanics is the blend word, or portmanteau.
In a well-constructed portmanteau, two component words blend together seamlessly through a phonetic overlap or similarity. Consider the word vegangelical, a blend of evangelical and vegan. While vegan doesn’t rhyme with the first two syllables of evangelical, it does have the same vowel sounds (when evangelical has a fully unemphasized and neutral second vowel). There’s also a shared “v” sound, even though it occurs in a slightly different place. The result of combining these words is apt, both semantically and phonologically. Another interesting blend is adhocracy, a combination of ad hoc and democracy.
Bad blends try to squish words together in unnatural ways. Foodportunity, a networking event for food journalists, got its terrible name when someone stuck the whole word food into a spot previously occupied by a syllable consisting of only a single vowel. The huge phonetic difference between these two parts makes the neologism sound unnatural. Other bad blends fail to preserve the patterns of syllable emphasis of their component words. I like to call this phenomenon awkwordplay, a blend of awkward and wordplay, because that name actually demonstrates the phenomenon. If you try to pronounce the word awkward correctly, with no emphasis on the second syllable, then wordplay sounds all wrong. If you pronounce wordplay correctly, with emphasis on the first syllable, awkward gets all messed up. There’s no nice, natural way to pronounce this word. A real example of awkwordplay is the name Teensurance, for a teen insurance policy from Safeco. The one-syllable word teen requires its own emphasis, but it replaces the unemphasized first syllable of insurance, resulting in a clunky name.
Perhaps the easiest way to create a new word is to simply stick two existing words together to make a compound. Political appellations that use this pattern include wingnuts (extreme right- wingers), moonbats (extreme lefties), and Islamofascists (which uses the classical compound-forming o to connect its two parts).
THE WORD FACTORY
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher we met in Chapter 8, compared the lexicon of a language to an old city. The grammatical words—auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and such—he likened to the ancient city center. There you find odd nooks and crannies that have been preserved for centuries. The vocabularies of mathematics and other technical fields he compared to orderly new subdivisions. To extend the analogy in an obvious way, brand names, URLs, and other such purpose-driven neologisms are the storefronts in the bustling commercial strips and shopping malls of the language. New ones pop up all the time, and a few succeed and become enduring parts of the landscape.
Brand names, in particular, are an interesting species. Unlike most other neologisms, they sometimes seem to be made out of whole cloth: Nerf, Kodak, Oreo. They’re highly artificial, designed with great care for commercial purposes, but they’re bona fide words of our language. Some even make the transition from proper noun to common noun or even verb (“googled” any- one lately?). Consider some of the words that started life as proprietary names: cellophane, granola, jungle gym, martini, minivan, novocaine, pablum, pancake makeup, xerox. The list goes on.
Names don’t just represent brands; they start brands. The ideas and feelings that a name evokes provide the scaffolding for a brand. Consider the name Google. Even if you don’t know it’s based on googol, a word coined by a child for a very large number, you probably get a playful, almost goofy vibe from it. Maybe you associate it (consciously or not) with the cartoon character Barney Google, the expression “googly eyes,” or representations of baby talk like “goo goo ga ga.” Now think of how well that vibe goes with Google’s simple interface, the primary colors of its logo, and its reputation as a fun and creative place to work. Now try to imagine the same logo and reputation being associated with the name Microsoft. Microsoft countered Google’s playfulness with a fun search engine name of its own: Bing.
Of course, many names are new coined words (or phrases). Most are created using the same processes that give birth to other new words. People combine existing words, and parts of words, to create new words. Take the word job, stick on the suffix -ster, and you’ve got the name Jobster. Blend the words technology and literati (or digerati) and you’ve got the name Technorati. And so on.
Usually people take the raw material of our natural shared language to construct artificial words, but today’s linguistic environment is so crowded with artificial words that they’ve become part of the raw material. Take the name Jobdango. Why is that dang -dango ending dangling there? You could argue that this name blends job and fandango, the name of a dance. But there’s really no sensible motivation for such a blend. Rather, this name seems to be a blend of job and the name Fandango, for a website that sells movie tickets. The name Fandango is based on the word for the dance, but it’s kind of a pun, because the site is for movie fans. Jobdango seems to be sort of a nod to the movie ticket site; it says, “I’m like Fandango for jobs.”
So the artificial word Fandango, based on the natural word fandango, becomes the raw material for the artificial word Jobdango. The artificial is built out of the artificial. It’s like what you find in music with sampling, or in food with the Dairy Queen Blizzard, which uses candy bars as raw ingredients in milkshakes. And now -dango has taken on a life of its own, appearing in names like Handango, Zoodango, and even GodDango. It has become what linguists call a cranberry morpheme, a meaningless word part that, like cran-, is left when you chop a meaningful part off a word.
The -dango phenomenon shows the historical process of language change being initiated and accelerated through naming. It invites another analogy to biological evolution: naming is to language change as breeding is to evolutionary change in domestic animals. Humans speed up and direct the process of evolution by selecting for traits that they like in their animal companions— random variation and artificial selection, if you will. It’s similar with naming. For the most part it works with word formation strategies that lead to language change organically but accelerate the process through conscious human choice. The emergence of the -dango cranberry morpheme is a good example. It’s possible to imagine a historical scenario in which the name Fandango is reanalyzed by speakers as including the word fan, and that leads to the emergence of the -dango suffix in an organic way.
Where will this process lead? The crowded space of names might create a need for more complex ways to create names. A blend, for example, is normally made out of just two seamlessly combined words, but it can be made out of three. The second part of the name Bare Escentuals manages to combine the words essential, scent, and sensual. A company in Seattle is called Fabjectory, which is a blend of fabject and object. But fabject itself is a blend of fabricated and object, coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. This is a complicated name, but complexity is a natural adap- tation to a challenging environment.
THE VERBAL REAL ESTATE MARKET
Just how competitive is the space of names? In 2006 there were already more than six million businesses in the United States (and more than half a million new ones were created that year alone). Of course, every one of them has a name.
The US Patent and Trademark Office has over a million and a half active trademark registrations, and more than 350,000 new registrations were filed in 2009. To put that into perspective, by some estimates the average English-speaking adult knows about 40,000 words. The number of active US trademarks is more than thirty times larger than the common English vocabulary (and the number of existing business names is about six times the number of active trademarks).
As daunting as the number of business names and trademarks is, things look even worse when you consider the web. Naming is no longer just for corporate marketing departments and entrepreneurs who invest their life savings in a business. It’s for everyone with an interest in personal branding. And that’s everyone. This is the age of blogs, micro-startups, and eBay stores run by people in their pajamas. All these projects need names.
This universal participation makes naming more difficult than ever. The web is now a crucial marketing platform, and naming means finding available Internet domain names. The vast universe of existing domain names makes it difficult to be both meaningful and distinctive.
Internet infrastructure company VeriSign reports that by the fourth quarter of 2009, over eighty million “.com” domains were registered and 192 registrations across all the top-level domains (“.org,” “.net,” etc.), with about eleven million new registrations made in the last quarter of 2009. According to Technorati CEO David Sifry’s report “The State of the Live Web” for 2007, there were more than seventy million blogs, and 120,000 new ones were created every day.
As the forces driving the artificial growth of our vocabulary grow stronger, things are looking bright for neologism.