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In linguistics, a neologism refers to a recently created (or coined) word, phrase or usage which can sometimes be attributed to a specific individual, publication, period or event. The term was itself coined around 1800.

A neologism can also refer to an existing word or phrase which has been assigned a new meaning. Neologisms are especially useful in identifying inventions, new phenomena, or old ideas which have taken on a new cultural context. A neologist is a person who develops a neologism and neology is the act of introducing a neologism into a language.


Changing culture

Neologisms tend to occur more often in cultures which are rapidly changing, and also in situations where there is easy and fast propagation of information. They are often created by combining existing words (see compound noun and adjective) or by giving words new and unique suffixes or prefixes. Those which are portmanteaus are shortened. Neologisms can also be created through abbreviation or acronym, by intentionally rhyming with existing words, or simply through playing with sounds.

Neologisms often become popular by way of mass media, the Internet, or word of mouth (see also Wiktionary's Neologisms:unstable or Protologism pages for a wiki venue of popularizing newly coined words) — especially, many linguists suspect, by younger people. Every word in a language was, at some time, a neologism, though most of these ceased to be such through time and acceptance.

Neologisms often become accepted parts of the language. Other times, however, they disappear from common usage. Whether or not a neologism continues as part of the language depends on many factors, probably the most important of which is acceptance by the public. Acceptance by linguistic experts and incorporation into dictionaries also plays a part, as does whether the phenomenon described by a neologism remains current, thus continuing to need a descriptor. It is unusual, however, for a word to enter common use if it does not resemble another word or words in an identifiable way. (In some cases however, strange new words succeed because the idea behind them is especially memorable or exciting). When a word or phrase is no longer "new," it is no longer a neologism. Neologisms may take decades to become "old," though. Opinions differ on exactly how old a word must be to no longer be considered a neologism; cultural acceptance probably plays a more important role than time in this regard.

Cultural acceptance

After being coined, neologisms invariably undergo scrutiny by the public and by linguists to determine their suitability to the language. Many are accepted very quickly; others attract opposition. Language experts sometimes object to a neologism on the grounds that a suitable term for the thing described already exists in the language. Non-experts who dislike the neologism sometimes also use this argument, deriding the neologism as "abuse and ignorance of the language."

Some neologisms, especially those dealing with sensitive subjects, are often objected to on the grounds that they obscure the issue being discussed, and that such a word's novelty often leads a discussion away from the root issue and onto a sidetrack about the meaning of the neologism itself.

Proponents of a neologism see it as being useful, and also helping the language to grow and change; often they perceive these words as being a fun and creative way to play with a language. Also, the semantic precision of most neologisms, along with what is usually a straightforward syntax, often makes them easier to grasp by people who are not native speakers of the language.

The outcome of these debates, when they occur, has a great deal of influence on whether a neologism eventually becomes an accepted part of the language. Linguists may sometimes delay acceptance, for instance by refusing to include the neologism in dictionaries; this can sometimes cause a neologism to die out over time. Nevertheless if the public continues to use the term, it always eventually sheds its status as a neologism and enters the language even over the objections of language experts.

Versions of neologisms

  • Unstable - Extremely new, being proposed, or being used only by a very small subculture.
  • Diffused - Having reached a significant audience, but not yet having gained acceptance.
  • Stable - Having gained recognizable and probably lasting acceptance.

Types of neologism

  • Scientific — words or phrases created to describe new scientific discoveries. Example: prion
  • Political — words or phrases created to make some kind of political or rhetorical point, sometimes perhaps with an eye to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Example: pro-life. Some political neologisms, however, are intended to convey a negative point of view. Example: brutalitarian
  • Pop-culture — words or phrases evolved from mass media content or used to describe popular culture phenomena (these may be considered a subsection of slang). Example: carb
  • Imported — words or phrases originating in another language. Typically they are used to express ideas that have no equivalent term in the native language. (See loanword.) Example: tycoon
  • Trademarks are often neologisms to ensure they are distinguished from other brands. If legal trademark protection is lost, the neologism may enter the language as a genericized trademark. Example: Kodak
  • Nonce words — words coined and used only for a particular occasion, usually for a special literary effect.
  • Inverted — words that are derived from spelling (and pronouncing) a standard word backwards. Example: redrum
  • Paleologism - a word that is alleged to be a neologism but turns out to be a long-used (if obscure) word. Used ironically.

Neologisms in literature

Many neologisms have come from popular literature, and tend to appear in different forms. Most commonly, they are simply taken from a word used in the narrative of a book; for instance, McJob from Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and cyberspace from William Gibson's Neuromancer. Sometimes the title of the book will become the neologism. For instance, Catch-22 (from the title of Joseph Heller's novel) and Generation X (from the title of Coupland's novel) have become part of the vocabulary of many English-speakers. Also worthy of note is the case in which the author's name becomes the neologism, although the term is sometimes based on only one work of that author. This includes such words as Orwellian (from George Orwell, referring to his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four) and Ballardesque (from J.G. Ballard, author of Crash). Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle was the container of the Bokononism family of Nonce words.

Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" has been called "the king of neologistic poems" as it incorporated some dozens of invented words. The early modern English prose writings of Sir Thomas Browne 1605-1682 are the source of many neologisms as recorded by the OED.


"Yesterday's neologisms, like yesterday's jargon, are often today's essential vocabulary."
– Academic Instincts, 2001[1]

See also

External links, resources, references


  • Fowler, H.W., "The King's English," Chapter I. Vocabulary, Neologism, 2nd ed. 1908.





In psychology, a neologism is a word invented by a person suffering from a language disorder, which may occur in the context of psychosis (see thought disorder) or aphasia acquired after brain damage ; clinicians can sometimes use these neologisms, which often have meaning only to the subject, as clues to determine the nature of the disorder.

In theology, a neologism is a relatively new doctrine (for example, rationalism). In this sense, a neologist is an innovator in the area of a doctrine or belief system, and is often considered heretical or subversive by the mainstream church.

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