Where words come from

Published 12:07 pm Thursday, February 16, 2017

One of the most fascinating aspects of language and something that interests almost everybody is how new words come into our language. Because language is always changing, the processes of word formation and creation are continually at work in our language. Here are a few of the more productive ones.

There is compounding, where two separate words come together to create a new word. Some common examples are schoolbus, notebook, baseball and fly fishing. Recent compounds that have made their way into English are boogy board and chick flick. On campus, our students are no strangers to compounding. Common ones are buzz kill, “when a good time is cut short,” frat star, “someone who makes the fraternity the center of his life,” and pop-off, “an event that is about to get big.”

Synthetic formation is really fun. It’s a lot like compounding on steroids. This happens when a phrase or group of different types of words are put together to refer to an object or idea. Good examples of this type of word formation are the name for the chocolate bar Whatchamacallit or calling somebody a know-it-all.

Blending is the joining of two words but with a partial loss of each one: smoke + fog = smog, breakfast + lunch = brunch. The media and technology have given us infomercial (information + commercial), blog (web+log) and the uncomfortable (at least for me and a few of my teaching friends) webinar (a seminar conducted on the web). At Hampden-Sydney College, it’s not uncommon to hear frama “frat drama” or manpanion (man + companion) to refer to another guy one spends a lot of time with. As one of my students added, “maybe a little too much time.”

We’re all familiar with words that are formed by taking the first letter of each word in a phrase and creating a new word from it. Most of us know that NASA and NAFTA stand for National Aeronautics and Space Administration and North American Free Trade Agreement, but did you know that laser, scuba and radar were also created from acronyms? They were originally: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (laser), self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) and radio detection and ranging (radar).

For those of you who prefer not to curse, you might want to be aware that snafu (any chaotic or confused situation) derives from a military acronym that drops an alphabetic bomb that comes after “e” and before “g.” I don’t want to risk offending any readers, so I’ll let you look it up in the American Heritage or Merriam Webster dictionaries and see for yourself.

Reductions or clippings are a very productive process in English. We have piano from pianoforte and prof for professor. Math, phone, bike and gym are all words that were derived from a longer form. Recent reductions are ‘Za, a shortened form for pizza and the verb dis “to show disrespect.” In the last couple of years, students now say Sydney for Hampden-Sydney College, much to the dislike of alumni, who often correct the reduction.

Eponyms are my favorite. These are words formed from proper names. In the 1700s when the Earl of Sandwich put a slab of meat between two pieces of bread he created the sandwich. Our word denim derives from the material used for overalls imported “de Nîmes” (literally “from the city Nîmes” in southern France). Jumbo meaning ‘really big’ comes from the famous elephant in the Barnum and Bailey circus. And a news photographer named Signor Paparazzo in the movie La Dolce Vita gave us the now very commonly used name paparazzi (plural) for celebrity photographers.

I’m going to end with the language feature we know as borrowing. English is a remarkable language. Its speakers have never been hesitant to let in new words from other languages. Far from weakening our language, borrowed words help us expand our cultural horizons for we often borrow words in order to name what is to us at the time of borrowing a new idea or cultural category. Alligator came to us from Spanish el lagarto “the lizard.” Notice how we borrowed the definite article and the noun and made one word from joining the article and the noun. From Dutch we took yacht and possibly the f-word. Arabic al-kohl gave us alcohol, and once again the definite article was borrowed along with its noun. From Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, via Spanish, we received chocolate from xocolatl and tomato from tomatl. Notice how those phonotactically awkward (at least to us) tl clusters were rearranged to –te, which makes it silly to argue that borrowing words from other languages weakens English since we modify incoming words to make them fit our sound system.

And finally there’s influenza which we borrowed from Italian. It is thought that the Italians once believed that the disease was influenced by the stars. Influenza has since been reduced to flu and been compounded in flu season and flu bug.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.