Word Coinage
Or, Let's Make Up Words!

Shakespeare did it. You do it more often than you expect. You're searching for a word, and it's on the tip of your tongue and you're scratching your head and sweating... and then you just take two words and cram them together in a meaningful way. Presto changeo, you've created a new word. As with all things linguistics, there are several different ways that words enter into a language's vernacular. For the purposes of this exercise, we'll stick to English words, though the procedures often stick for other languages as well.


Here there be nouns, verbs, and adjectives. When you smash together two (or more!) of these, you form yourself a friendly little compound word. Doubtless you are unsurprised that boyfriend, road rage, and mailman did not exist in the primordial goo that was English back in the day. These words were all formed later, for the purposes of convenience. (Note: compounds are spelled with and without dashes and spaces between the words)

When the two words smashed together are in the same category (noun + noun, verb + verb, adjective + adjective), the right-most word is the "head" of the compound, giving the new word its primary meaning. Consider the following:

noun + noun
  • homework
  • girlfriend
verb + verb
  • sleepwalk
  • breakdance
adjective + adjective
  • icy-cold
  • red-hot

Notice that the right-most word is the root purpose of the word. Something can be red-hot without being red, a girlfriend is a very specific type of friend, not a specific type of girl (though I'm certain someone will argue this one), and if you're breakdancing, it is unlikely that you're breaking anything at all (unless you're truly no good at the dance).

Naturally, there are more ways to create compounds than simply by slapping together like-form words. Consider pickpocket, homework, headstrong, and spoonfed. These four words were created by mashing v+n, n+v, n+a, and n+v respectfully. And that doesn't even begin to make light of those words formed with prepositions, such as mother-of-pearl and overtake.

The most entertaining part of compounding when making new words is the ambiguity that comes along with it. Consider top-hat rack vs. top hat rack. The first is a rack for top-hats, the second is the hat rack that is highest up. A Redcoat in a woman's closet is vastly more important (or was, in 1779) than having a red coat (though fashionistas may disagree). Further, a boathouse is for boats, a doghouse is for dogs, but a cathouse is for prostitutes. A magnifying glass does what it ought, but a looking glass does not. Highbrows generally don't, and bigwigs will never admit it, and eggheads look just like you and me.


When an acronym falls into the vernacular, we in English do funny things with it, depending on just how specific we want to be. Take, for example, NASA. We all know how to pronounce that string of letters, and we know that each letter stands for something (our first clue is that it is all in capital letters), even if we don't know it's for National Aeronautics and Space Agency. We computer geeks know RAM is random access memory, and ROM is read-only memory. We've noticed AIDS and UNESCO, even if we don't remember what each letter stands for. We even allow ourselves to build on these acronyms. Consider ROM, PROM, and EPROM.

In the cases above, each acronym is pronounced as a word. However, though UCLA and NFL both are active acronyms in our vernacular, we do not pronounce it as a "word" per se, because "uk-luh" and "niffle" are not pleasant to our delicate tastes.

We, the Internet folk, create our own gender of acronyms when we want to save time typing. You know them all: MORF, a/s/l, FAQ, wysiwyg, and a slough of others. It is unlikely we're all on the same page whether or not these are pronounced as NASA is, or as NFL is.

Sometimes, however, we get words that we don't put all in caps, and we occasionally forget that these words are formed by acronyms. Consider laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). Even snafu is an acronym, taken from the mouths of soldiers in WWII: Situation normal, all fouled up (feel free to replace "fouled" with an f-word of your choice).


By far my absolute favorite form of word creation comes from back-formations. Take, if you will, stoke, swindle and edit. All three of these words came about because folk thought the endings of stoker, swindler and editor were inflectional endings (one who stokes, swindles or edits). Pea came about because people mistakingly thought pease was plural.

I wonder how long it will be before someone attempts to be couth, plussed, and ept by removing the "morphological affixes" (they are not morphological affixes in these cases, though they look an awful lot like them) from uncouth, nonplussed, and inept.

Abbreviations or Clipping

We're a very time-oriented society. We've got very little time to say what we mean. So when I say "these ads in my zine really annoy me," you know I'm referring to advertisements in a magazine. I've studied math (mathematics), I pay for gas (gasoline), and I ride a bike (bicycle).

Words from Names / Eponyms

In O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun: An Etymology of Words That Once Were Names, Willard R. Espy compiled a list of over 1,500 words that exist in the current vernacular that were, at one time or another, proper nouns--that is to say the name of a very specific person or place. Peanut butter and jelly, slapped between two pieces of bread gives us a sandwich, which is named for the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who put meat between bread so that he could eat while gambling. A robot is actually from a Czech play by Karel Capek, named R.U.R., which meant Rossum's Universal Robots. If something is bigger than big, it's gargantuan, named for Gargantua, the creature with a huge appetite created by Rabelais, and if something is jumbo, then it's named after an elephant brought to America by P. T. Barnum.

Further, denim was once imported from France, de Nimes ("from Nimes"), argyle from Scotland, the kind of socks worn by the chiefs of Argyll of the Campbell clan, and those annoying paparazzi (singular, paparazzo) are named for the news photographer character of Signor Paparazzo in the motion picture La Dolce Vita.


Finally we get to it--the catchall for word formations that don't really fit anywhere else: the blending. Let's take the two words smoke and fog and merge them together, not like compounding (keeping the words intact), but by really, truly, smushing them together. Done? You should be left with smog (if you came up with foke, then you did it the wrong way). Cranapple is likely made of cranberries and apples, motels are for motorists who need hotels, and infomercials are ironically named for commercials that are informative (who needs to be informed at 3am?).

The true king of blending, however, has to be Lewis Carroll, who, in his brilliant Jabberwocky poem, creates a variety of whimsical and fun words. Consider chortle, which blends chuckle and snort. Slithy is both lithe and slimy, and mimsy is flimsy and miserable.

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