Neologisms: How New Words Shape Our Society

What’s the difference between a real word and a made-up one? Someone made up every word in every language at some point, and the people around them agreed to keep using it. 

As evidenced by major dictionaries like Oxford and Merriam-Webster adding hundreds of new words to their pages each year, language constantly evolves, and humanity continues to create new words. While some might be passing fads, others become accepted into the daily speech of the wider population. 

What is a Neologism in the English Language? 

The word neologism comes from the Greek words neo for new and logos for word or speech. Linguists and lexicographers consider a word a neologism if it is still too new to have been widely adopted by most speakers of the language. However, it may be popular with a specific group or sub-population. 

Many neologisms may start as what we would refer to as “slang.” Merriam-Webster defines slang as “(1) language peculiar to a particular group; (2) an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech.”

Once mainstream speakers adopt a word or phrase outside of the initial group of speakers, it is considered a neologism. 

Slang is particular to one group. Everyone uses “regular” words. A neologism is somewhere in the middle. 

Example of Neologism

One of the most widely recognizable neologisms of the past several years is covid. The technical designation of the disease that triggered a years-long global health emergency is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, shortened to SARS-CoV-2. 

Officially, the disease was named COVID-19, shortened from coronavirus disease 2019. SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, and nCoV (novel coronavirus) have all been added to the dictionary. 

However, in normal conversation, many people simply use the term “covid,” which is not in the dictionary. Although its meaning is widely known, covid still isn’t a “real word” and meets the criteria for a neologism.  

5 Main Types of Neologisms 

How do we invent new words? A lot of times, we shorten and combine words that already exist. Occasionally, however, we might make up a totally new word. There are 6 main types of neologisms in the English language. 

1. Abbreviations and acronyms 

When you need cash, you put your PIN into an ATM. In fact, some people might even say that you put your PIN number into the ATM machine— even though PIN and ATM stand for “personal identification number” and “automated teller machine,” respectively.

These acronyms have become so standard in daily speech that even though they’re not technically words, we treat them like they are. In fact, you call the touchpoint where you use your debit or credit card at most stores a PIN Pad. 

If you paid attention to states of matter in science class, you might have been confused to discover that the gas you put into your car is actually a liquid. That’s because that liquid’s full name is gasoline, but we tend to shorten or abbreviate it in our daily conversations.

When you say you’re going to put gas in your car, people know that you are referring to a liquid fuel source and what science would strictly define as a gas. It still doesn’t stop people from joking about “having gas.”

ATM, PIN, and gas are examples of acronyms and abbreviations

Portmanteaus 

We generally accept that there are three meals in a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, if you were to go to many restaurants in the late morning or early afternoon on a Sunday, you’d probably be handed a menu for “Brunch.”

Brunch is a contraction of “breakfast” and “lunch.” Your typical brunch menu contains some classic breakfast foods, some classic lunch foods, and some combinations of the two, like a burger with a fried egg on top.

Many people enjoy alcoholic beverages with brunch, particularly mimosas and Bloody Marys. 

Brunch is an example of a portmanteau. 

New words 

If you were in middle or high school in the early 2000s, you were probably baffled to discover a few years ago that middle parts and baggy jeans are the trends.

Now, the hip, cool look among high school and college students is the same one you got bullied out of wearing in the sixth grade, and your side part and skinny jeans make you look old or unfashionable.

Perhaps you have heard yourself or some aspect of your style described as “cheugy.” 

Though it didn’t come into widespread use until it went viral on TikTok, the word cheugy was made up by a student at Beverly Hills High School in 2013. Creator Gabby Rasson said she was looking for a word to describe someone who is just slightly off-trend, and since none existed, she went with a combination of sounds that conveyed the very essence of what she meant. Cheugy is what came out.

There’s no set-in-stone list of traits that makes someone cheugy, but you probably are if you can’t use it in a conversation. 

Cheugy is an example of an entirely new word. 

Old words, new meanings 

For most of human history, if you told someone they were “sick,” you were either a medical professional delivering bad news or insulting their moral character.

Then, the 1980s happened. Sick became another way of saying that something really cool or impressive. Sometimes, it has a purely positive meaning. If you tell someone a new album is “pretty sick,” it means the music is really good.

If someone had a sick fall while riding their bike, it probably wasn’t a great experience for them, but it might have been mildly impressive in how bad it was. While sick might not be as popular today as a few decades ago, most people will still get what you mean if you tell them they’ve got “sick moves” while riding a skateboard. 

Sick is an example of an existing word repurposed with a new meaning. 

New combinations of widely-used words 

Imagine if you were standing in a crowded place in 2019 and an employee came along and asked people to social distance. You’d know what the word social meant, and you’d know what distance meant.

However, put together in that context, you probably would have stared at that person in confusion. In a post-covid world, however, you would immediately know to move so you were at least 6 feet away from the people around you.

The combination of those two words, which would have been nonsensical or confusing just a few years ago, now has a very clear meaning. 

Social distance is an example of a phrase that combines common words to create a new meaning.   

The Importance of Neologism 

Language is a living thing. Our society is constantly changing, especially as we develop new technologies at the rapid pace we have been for the past several decades.

As we continue to innovate, we need new words to help precisely and accurately describe our experiences in the physical, internal, and digital worlds.

Neologisms help us describe new concepts and things in a way others can understand. Sometimes, the old words and phrases just don’t capture the essence of what we want to convey correctly. As neologisms pass from slang into widely accepted language, we work together as a society to create more descriptive words. 

Neologism in Social Networking Examples 

New technologies often drive the invention of new words. In recent years, the social media boom has added several neologisms to the English lexicon. 

Troll 

In European folklore and fairytales, trolls were ugly, humanoid creatures known for living under bridges and eating unwary travelers who could not answer their riddles.

Today, if someone calls another user on a social media platform a troll, they are accusing them of posting purposefully inflammatory, controversial, or derogatory comments for their own amusement.

The act of doing so is called “trolling.” The term dates back to the early ’90s when internet users used it to describe disruptive or annoying speech. It took on its current meaning in the early 2000s on the 4chan platform. 

Live Tweet 

Social media platforms have allowed us to share snippets of our day in real-time through text posts, photo or video stories, or live streams. When someone shares live coverage of an incident or event through a constant stream of Tweets, it’s known as live tweeting.

Live tweeting began as a way for news platforms to expand their live coverage to a new platform. CNN and Facebook’s joint “live-tweet” coverage of the 2009 Presidential Inauguration represents one of the earliest examples of live-tweeting.

However, any average social media user can live tweet anything, no matter how mundane. For example, live tweeting an overheard conversation or tense family gathering can quickly go viral. 

Ratioed

Twitter has been responsible for adding many neologisms to the English language. Getting “ratioed” on Twitter does not have the same meaning as it does in your math class.

Unlike Facebook, which eventually did add multiple ways to react to a post, Twitter has kept its interaction interface fairly simple. You can like a tweet, share it by “retweeting,” or comment on it. Liking or retweeting usually means you approve of or agree with the tweet’s content.

But since there is no way to downvote or dislike a tweet, the only way to express a negative reaction is by commenting. If your “ratio” of comments to likes and retweets is any higher than 1:1, it’s usually a sign that you have posted an unpopular opinion.  

Neologism in Pop Culture Examples 

Neologisms may start as slang among a specific sub-population, but then mass media picks them up, and they start circulating among wider portions of the population. Many words pass into the realm of neologism through pop culture.  

Staycation 

When we think of using our precious vacation days, we usually think of getting on a plane or taking a road trip somewhere far away.

However, factors outside our control, such as finances, sometimes prevent us from traveling. Or you might decide that the stress of negotiating airports, traffic, and long lines at tourist traps is not how you want to spend your time off.

A staycation refers to a vacation where you simply relax at home or take day trips to places nearby. Though the word was used sporadically in the early 2000s—and there is even evidence that it dates to World War II—it really became popular when the market crash of 2008 forced many homes to cut back on expenses, especially travel.  

Zoomer 

The phenomenon of naming generational groups and assigning them different traits is relatively new. Many credit writer and feminist Gertrude Stein as one of the first to do so when she labeled the incredible creative minds of the 1920s as the “Lost Generation.”

People born into the post-war prosperity of the 50s and early 60s are known as baby boomers (since there was a huge reproductive boom after World War II) or simply “boomers.” Gen X, millennials, and then Gen Z followed.

While the younger generations might use the term “boomer” disparagingly to point out that their elders are out of touch, older generations have taken to using the term “Zoomer” for those born in the late 90s and early 2000s. It also highlights the younger generation’s negative traits, such as entitlement and over-sensitivity. 

Himbo

When you hear the word bimbo, you probably think of an attractive but not-too-intelligent woman. Actually, users originally coined the word for men. Still, the association with women became so entrenched that by 1988, a Washington Post movie critic derived the term himbo to represent a “brawny, plain-speaking” hero of a blockbuster action movie.

In the past few years, “himbo” has seen a resurgence. Today, we widely accept that a himbo must meet three criteria: beefy, kind, and stupid. Unlike bimbo, himbo is a positive term. Some of the most beloved characters in pop culture are himbos, including Kronk from Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove.  

Neologism in Literature Examples 

A writer’s job is to find the most evocative word to describe something to their readers. But sometimes, when the right word or phrase for something doesn’t exist, it’s up to the author to invent their own.  

Tribute 

Defined by Merriam-Webster, the word tribute can have multiple meanings, including “a gift or service showing respect, gratitude, or affection,” “something that indicates the worth, virtue, or effectiveness of the one in question,” or “a payment by one ruler or nation to another in acknowledgment of submission or as the price of protection.”

However, to people who were teenagers in the early 2010s, the word has taken on another meaning. In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, a tribute is a young person sent by one of the 12 Districts of Panem to fight in the Hunger Games, a life-or-death survival competition televised for entertainment.

While officials choose Tributes by lottery, someone else can volunteer to take their place. The phrase “I volunteer as tribute” has become popular on the internet as a way of enthusiastically and emphatically offering to submit yourself to something that is supposedly a sacrifice.

For example, if you are experiencing a slow day at work, your boss might decide to send someone home. As whoever gets sent home won’t be paid for a full shift, you should hope to be one of the ones to stay. However, if you are just tired of being at work and don’t care about the extra money, you might “volunteer as tribute.” 

Debunk 

The word debunk was first used in the 1923 novel Bunk by William E. Woodward. The prefix de- indicates removing something, as in decapitate (to remove the head).

“Bunk” was a term that had come to mean nonsense, specifically in a political speech. It came from a long-winded and pointless speech by Representative Felix Walker during the 16th U.S. Congress, addressed to his constituents in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

Buncombe eventually became bunkum and then shortened to bunk. Literally, debunk means to “remove nonsense.” In Woodward’s novel and modern usage, it means to reveal information as false by uncovering the truth. 

Muggle 

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, some people are born with magical abilities while others are not. Those with magical abilities are called witches or wizards and live in their own secluded society with a separate government, school system, and even currency. Average humans without magical abilities are called muggles.

With the massive global popularity of the series, muggle has passed into everyday use.

In everyday life, a muggle lacks a certain set of skills or knowledge, especially when surrounded by a group of people who possess those traits. For example, someone who knows nothing about The Bachelor might be called a muggle by their friends who watch it religiously every week. 

Related: Generonyms 

What do you call that thick, greasy substance you put on chapped lips? Most people would probably answer with Vaseline. However, the actual name of the substance is petroleum jelly.

Vaseline is the brand name of a petroleum jelly product line produced by Johnson & Johnson. Since this brand has dominated the market for so long, it has become a shorthand for all petroleum jelly products.

If you were to get a tattoo, you might be sent home with care instructions that tell you to cover the area in Vaseline for a few days. However, any petroleum jelly product like Aquaphor or a generic store brand will work just as well. 

Vaseline is an example of a generonym, or a brand name that has become the generic name for all similar products. For example, you might ask for an Advil instead of an ibuprofen or a Coke instead of a cola. 

Commonly Asked Questions 

The line between slang, neologism, and words can be blurry. Here are some common words and phrases that you might have questions about.

Is “lol” a neologism? 

Yes, lol is a neologism. Lol—an acronym for “laughing out loud”—was originally used to express amusement in text-based conversations but is now used in spoken conversations.

You may pronounce each letter individually—”ell-oh-ell”— like the first syllable in “lollipop.” It is usually used ironically or for something that is only mildly amusing. 

Is Google a neologism?

When used as a verb, Google is a neologism. It is also an example of a generonym.

Google is still the world’s most popular search engine by a huge margin. However, no matter what search engine they use, most people refer to conducting any internet search as “Googling.” 

Is noob a neologism? 

Yes, noob—sometimes spelled n00b—is considered a neologism. Noob began in online gaming communities to refer to someone inexperienced and new to the community.

Gamers shortened “noob” from the term “newbie.” While not everyone, especially older generations, might know or use this word, it has spread significantly outside its original community to refer to anyone lacking knowledge in a particular area. 

Is email a neologism? 

Technically, email is not a neologism anymore, but it was when the communication medium first became popular.

Email started as an abbreviation of electronic mail, originally the most widely used term for this type of messaging.

However, almost no one refers to it as “electronic mail” anymore, and you would probably confuse more people by not using the word email. 

Is selfie a neologism? 

Selfie is still considered a neologism. Selfie refers to taking a picture of yourself, usually using the front-facing camera on your phone.

While most people will probably understand what you mean when you use this word, not all native English speakers consider it a “real word.” 

Is laser a neologism?

Laser is no longer considered a neologism. Originally, it was an acronym for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

However, it is now generally accepted by professionals and the general public as its word. 

Final Thoughts on Neologisms 

If you’d never heard the word neologism before today, you probably realize that you use several neologisms every day. There is no point in arguing whether something is a “real” word—language should change and develop as our society does.

Whether or not traditionalists and language elitists agree, humankind will keep coming up with neologisms, and some of those neologisms will eventually become fully accepted as part of the English lexicon.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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