New Words are Trickier Than They Look


In my last post, I threw out a question that concerned creating new words for the many forms of coffee. Well today I’ve thought better of that.

A car dealership commercial on the radio got me thinking about how creating new words is very, very tricky. The over-volumed voice was proclaiming a wide selection of “pre-owned” cars. Somewhere, a few years ago, in a marketing galaxy far, far away, some non-English speaking, yet fast-talking salesperson decided “used car” had a derogatory connotation. In an effort to increase sales, s/he came up with “pre-owed” to supplant “used.” Speedy Lips sold the boss on the idea and the commercials began, signs were changed, investments were made, and now there is no going back.

Those who understand the roots of languages, including English, know that the prefix “pre” means “before, prior to” as in prefix: something attached to the beginning of a word to change or enhance its meaning. Little did our mental midget of marketing know that s/he had just created a word that really means “new car.” If something is pre-owned, it has never been owned; it is new. A pre-owned car is a new car by definition of the prefix “pre.”

Now that the car dealerships have co-opted the word for their own designs, we as unwitting consumers have accepted their definition of “previously owned.” Here lies my conflict.

Should language be a democratic exercise? Is natural evolution really the best way for a language to grow? It gives English an amazing ability to adapt to the changing world while simultaneously making English the most difficult language on the planet to learn and/or master. I’m certainly not advocating what the French have. Them and their silly Societé with their pens out, running about, giving an official stamp of approval to every new word behavior. I call your language police a silly thing.

But there is something to be said for the simple clicks and whistles of a bushman in the remote wilds of Africa. It all comes down to communication. I don’t care what language you speak or which alphabet you use, on some level we can all communicate. As long as you get your idea across, does it really matter? Playing word games can make your message more or less ambiguous, but is it really just the thought that counts?

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13 Comments

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  1. I think you have to do more than just get your idea across, otherwise everyone would be writing in txt spk, since that’s much easier than properly constructed, grammatically correct sentences. That said, yes, the evolution of words should be (and is) organic and fluid. Words that get used constantly get cycled into the dictionaries and those that become obsolete are noted as such or left out entirely – unless you have an OED. I don’t think they take anything out of that one.

  2. Another thought provoking blog entry. The evolution of words seems to be changing faster and faster in the last few decades. One example of a word that popular culture is trying to change its meaning of is ‘bad.’ “You are so bad.” What does that mean? You’re sexy or an axe murderer or maybe a sexy axe murderer? And it drives me crazy when people say, “My bad” for ‘my mistake.’ LOL

  3. I hate My bad, too. The other word I dislike is ginormous. It’s now officially a word in the dictionary. Ugh.

  4. “Ginormous” was the result of democracy at it’s basic level, a contest held by Merriam-Webster. So I still have to ask, is the democratic evolution of language good or bad?

  5. Your blog today is total synchronicity in action. I was driving to my soccer game the other day, and I saw a huge sign for “Certified Pre-Owned” vehicles. It made me laugh out loud because like a jackass, I never connected “certified pre-owned” with used. I thought there was a hierarchy of car buying. Lowest level: used. Middle-level: pre-owned. Highest level: new. Whoever came up with “certified pre-owned” is a total genius.

    Being a teacher, my students come up with the greatest “new” words all the time. Just yesterday, a student wrote “validify” in her paper. She really hit the perfect mixture of “validate” and “ify.” I was very impressed. I keep a list of new student words in the classroom. Inspiring what the kids are doing these days.

  6. My country-bumpkin high school English teachers always argued that as long as the person you were speaking to understood what you were trying to communicate, it didn’t matter what you say.

    Meanwhile, I am trying to be a writer, yet I don’t remember any real words and always find myself making words up as I go along.

  7. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the evolution of many words based on slang and euphemisms that become mainstreamed? And slang and euphemisms are used basically by one generation trying to keep another generation from understanding what is being said right under their noses. Teens want to confuse their parents and set themselves apart from them. Parents want to talk in front of their pre-schoolers without them ‘catching on’ to the ‘real’ conversation. That hasn’t changed in centuries and there’s no reason to believe it will change in the future.

  8. It’s amazing how pop-culture has influence our language, like yada, yada. The text message generation is a big influence. I think we’re processing so much information these days we’re abbreviating words, therefore creating new ones. It’s like having to understand Morse code in order to text and IM.

    There’s definitely evolution in the English language but wonder if other languages create new words.

  9. Ask A Linguist!

    The French have an Academie (they outlawed “e-mail” because it looks too much like the French word for “enamel”); !Xung (that’s a glottal click) is an incredibly complicated language, and if someone offers you pre-chewed gum, would you take it?

  10. Also, I have to add this – the most perfect, useful, made-up word I’ve ever seen:

    aquilibrium (n) – the proper water pressure from a drinking fountain conducive to drinking, not shooting up your nose, but not so you have to lick the faucet; as in, “Someone should fix the water fountain in the lobby; it won’t reach aquilibrium.”

    Did I say made-up? Seems perfectly cromulent, actually.

  11. Gawd! I love you Jenn. Keep me on the right track.

  12. hmm on the car thing, in mexico they call them “semi-new” (in spanish of course)

    but best made up words recently… one of my mexican friends thought that “glice” was a word in english meaning “glass with ice.” We decided it was a far better way to express the concept.

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