Tag: play

In defense of new words

Do you make up words?

Gosh – I certainly do.

There is a strong conservative* strand amongst scholars and users of English, the strand of thought that says that words should mean what they have always meant and that the words we have are quite good enough, thank you very much, and why is that terrible greengrocers’ apostrophe disfiguring that sign? Bah, humbug!

I’ll own up to some of that – it’s really why I bought Strunk & White, after all. I find some punctuation abuse to be nigh on unbearable, and malapropisms require me to offer corrective advice with alacrity.

Meanings do change. I despair whenever I hear “momentarily” used to mean “in a moment” rather than “for a moment”, although the former usage is now so widespread that it is non-standard to hear the original form. Ditto “enormity” to mean “big” rather than “appalling”, and “hacker” to denote a destructive computer user, and so on. I just about accept that meanings change.

But new words? I love hearing them, and I love inventing them.

Part of this is because I am a writer, and finding fresh expressions is part and parcel of that. Consider Shakespeare Рhe is credited with inventing more than 1,500 words and phrases in his work (although whether he actually invented them or wrote down spoken usage is another question). English was at a fluid point in its development then, the grammar having largely found its modern form but with spelling still not standardised.

Part of this is that I am a science fiction writer and a technologist – I have truck with the new and the unknown all the time, and finding terms to capture the essence of these new things is a significant portion of what I do (I’m a computer programmer: I over-extend metaphors for a living).¬†I am no Humpty Dumpty saying that words mean exactly what I mean them to mean – I use existing vocabulary accurately where it is being used in its established context – but I will invent new words where necessary, and reuse existing words if the context is distinct.

But mostly it’s just fun to play with words.

[*] very much with a small ‘c’, but consider this satire on the English Defence League.

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