Why Do Some New Words Last and Others Fade?

atkins-bookshelf-wordsAccording to the Global Language Monitor (GLM), there are 1,019,729 words in the English language. The Google/Harvard Study of the Current Number of Words in the English Language also arrived at a similar number — 1,022,000 (a difference of .0121%) — after an analysis of the Google Corpus (more than 15 million English language scanned by Google). The GLM estimates that in the modern world a new word is created every 98 minutes. Each year, an estimated 800 to 1,000 new words are added to English language dictionaries (in the 20th century alone, more than 90,000 words have been added). Editors of the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to be completed by 2037, estimate that the rate of inclusion of new words into the OED are about 4,000 per year. In 2014, the OED added more than 2,500 new words.

This dramatic increase in new words is largely due to technology, and how people spontaneously coin new words in their email and text transmissions that spread quickly and efficiently via social media. A large percentage of new words are portmanteau words, also called blended words — a word that combines the meaning of two discrete words; for example, cineplex is formed from cinema and complex, bromance is formed from brother and romance, staycation is formed from stay and vacation. You get the idea.

Linguists Constantine Lignos and Hilary Prichard, from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to know why do some blended words last and others fade away? In January 2015, they presented their findings (“Quantifying Cronuts: Predicting the Quality of Blends”) at a meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. The researchers asked study participants to rate 88 blended words on a five-point scale. There are six key factors that determine whether a blended word will survive long enough to be added to a dictionary:
1. Completion Probability: Unique word parts that be processed and completed faster will most likely succeed. The brain works like an autotype app that completes the word quickly. For example, you read “brother,” when you see “bro.”
2. Association: Two discrete words making up a blend that are related work better; for example, friend and enemy are associated with one another, so frenemy will likely last.
3. Fun Factor: Words tied to pop culture tend to work well; for example, “sharknado” that was the title of an over-the-top horror film in 2013 (yes, flying sharks) or the cheeky “sheeple” (sheep + people).
4. Applicability: A blend must apply to different situations; for example disastrophe is general, whereas snowquester is very specific to a winter storm in Washington, D.C.
5. Naturalness: The more natural a blend word sounds (similar to the root words), the most likely it will survive; for example bromance sounds like the root words (bro + romance), while dunch does not contain the natural sound of both root words (“d” from “dinner” + “inch” from “lunch”).
6. Understandability: The easier it is to deduce the meaning of the blend word, the more likely it will last; for example it is easy to understand the meaning of punny (pun + funny) as opposed to wonut (waffle + donut).

In the final analysis, the researchers noted that the two most important factors are naturalness and understandability. Here are some of the highest scoring blended words from the study:
Sexpert (sex + expert)
Mathlete (math + athlete)
Guesstimate (guess + estimate)

Televangelist (television + evangelist)
Mockumentary (mock + documentary)
Bromance (brother + romance)
Frenemy (friend + enemy)
Dramedy (drama + comedy)
Affluenza (affluent + influenza)
Sharknado (shark + tornado)

Here are some of the lowest scoring words:
Fozzle (fog + drizzle)
Mizzle (mist + drizzle)
Brinkles (bed + wrinkles)
Wegotism (we + egotism)
Wonut (waffle + donut)
Swacket (sweater + jacket)
Framily (friends + family)
Dunch (dinner + lunch)
Coopetition (cooperation + competition)
Snowquester (snow + sequester)

Read related posts: How Many Words in the English Language?
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order

What is the Longest Word in English?

For further reading: http://lignos.org/blends/
Why Did Frenemy Stick?, Time Magazine, July 6/13, 2015 Issue.

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