September 19, 2002 - 'Predicting New Words'
Download MP3 (Right-click or option-click the link.)
AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER -- "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success."
RS: That's the title of a new book by our friend at the American Dialect Society, Allan Metcalf.
METCALF: "The most successful new words are what I call 'stealth words' that enter the language and enter our vocabulary without us even noticing that they are new. And the least successful are ones that stick out like a sore thumb. For example: 'schmooseoisie."
AA & RS: "Hmm."
METCALF: "That's exactly the kind of reaction you hear at 'schmooseoisie': hmm. It's the term that was invented by some smart person for people who earn a living by their talk. Get it? From bourgeoisie and schmoozing? And you might say that's pretty clever, but so what?"
RS: "What about the impact of ethnic diversity in the United States, in particular the Spanish-speaking world, on American English?"
METCALF: "There really isn't that much influence except in cultural areas where the whole culture has adopted things. So in foods, for example -- salsa, for example, is something that everyone knows, or tacos. The basic rule of thumb is that the dominant language usually does not pick up terminology from the subordinate language.
"So, for example, the English spoken in California, at least by those who are not of Hispanic background, has very little of Hispanic words even though there are several million people living in California who either speak Spanish or whose culture is Hispanic."
RS: "In the last chapter of your book you talk about 'my new word,' about new words and how we could actually begin to invent words. What are some of your suggestions for doing that?"
METCALF: "Yes, well, choose a word that seems so natural that it seems like it's already been around, then begin using it. And use it yourself in any way you can, use it naturally though. But don't ever succumb to the temptation to claim, 'Guess what, you've just used my new word, because that will turn people off."
AA: "Does it basically come down to that every new word could, if you really traced it, be traced back to say one person?"
METCALF: "Well, I think a lot of new words can be traced back to multiple creations. You know there's the term 'brunch' for the meal that combines breakfast and lunch. Well, there is no commonly accepted word for the combination of lunch and dinner. But somebody sent me a message saying that she had invented a word for that, and she called it 'linner.'"
AA: So Allan Metcalf looked on the Internet search engine Google.
METCALF: "And I found out that, guess what, about 100 or so other people -- at least -- had also thought of linner."
RS: "'Linner' seems a little awkward to me."
METCALF: "It does, and it's not used much. But every now and then somebody wants to use it, so they invent it again."
AA: "But what if, let's say, the president or a celebrity gets up there on television and says 'well, I'm going off to linner right now.'"
METCALF: "That would help."
AA: "That would help?"
METCALF: "I'll give you one example of a truly new creation that has become a standard phrase, and that's the term 'couch potato.' Nobody talked about couch potato until about thirty years ago. There were some people in California, they were television fans, and one of them referred to another as a 'couch potato.' And he did this as a joke, because television is the 'tube,' and so someone who watches the tube would be a tuber, and a tuber is a potato. So you sit on your couch and you're a tuber -- you're a couch potato.
"After awhile people forgot the joke part of it, and now we can talk about a couch potato with a straight face, we can even have a serious discussion of 'Americans are becoming couch potatoes and they're losing their physical fitness,' but if we had consciously in our minds that terrible pun, we would avoid it, it's too much."
RS: Allan Metcalf is an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, and author of "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success."
AA: And that's all for this week. Look for us on the Web at voanews.com/wordmaster, and our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.
MUSIC: "Couch Potato"/Tim Briggs