Why do some new words take off — even unlikely ones, such as Tebowing — and some fail? Neologism expert Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, gives five factors by which to judge the success of a new word: what he calls the FUDGE scale. FUDGE stands for “frequency of use” (more use means a higher chance of success), “unobtrusiveness” (is it too jokey?), “diversity of users and situations” (is it used by a lot of different people?), “generation of other forms and meanings” (can you verb it?), and “endurance of the concept.” (So maybe, after last weekend, Tebowing won’t be a long-lived term after all.)
For an ordinary person who wants to coin a new word, the most difficult of the hurdles are those involving popularity: How do you get a new word out there? When famous folks create a new word, we notice. A favorite from the past year was a new unit of time measurement, the Kardash — a period of 72 days, aka the length of Kim Kardashian’s marriage — coined by none other than Weird Al Yankovich. “Jersey Shore” star Snooki got attention for using the quasi-word volumptuous (most likely a blend of voluptuous and lump, but with Snooki, who can be sure?) on the Jimmy Kimmel show. But words used by less-prominent individuals tend to be unfairly overlooked.
To help level the playing field for noncelebrity neologizers (those who create new words) everywhere, I recently put out a call on Twitter, asking for submissions of favorite new words. And, based on the rich haul of responses I received, there are plenty of new words that just need a little public relations boost to take hold.
Some new words make you wonder how you lived without them. Why call something just super when you could use Baheru Mengistu’s superbulon? Who hasn’t encountered the unpleasant practice of nukepicking, the combination of nitpicking and blowing things out of proportion, submitted by Vlad Marian Birladianu? I plan to be a frequent user of Andrea Hert’s estiknow, to assert that you’re 90 percent sure of something (“It’s two steps above ‘guesstimate,’” she says.)
Some folks passed along words they’d heard others use that have now become integral parts of their own vocabularies. Chris Atherton submitted urbigator, a word created by her college roommate’s sister, meaning any large earth-moving or digging vehicle (most likely from a Latin root meaning “city” and the – gator of alligator). Swain Wood uses his friend’s word stecta for any very small distance, e.g. “that 18-wheeler came a stecta from hitting our car!” Erica La Strada’s family has borrowed into English her father’s made-up Italian word, pennio, which describes the feeling of being hungry without knowing what you’re hungry for. It is often used while standing in front of an open refrigerator.
Sometimes new words are not so much inventions as reinventions: Kevin Lam submitted forgetfory (a very useful antonym of memory, as in “don’t expect me to remember your phone number, I have an excellent forgetfory”). That word that was also used in a 1907 issue of “The Leather Workers’ Journal,” although more as a synonym for “head”: “Another correspondent noted that we would get a bump on our forgetfory that would hold us for a while.”
Other new words are worth knowing for their sounds alone. Tom Oster reports that his mother’s uneven bang-trimming sometimes resulted in snizzled hair; Twitter user @TheFoolJoss passes along an Irish friend’s word for being overcome by sleepiness after an afternoon’s drinking: getting cafagagaggied. And Anne Connell has a marvelous-sounding word for those bores who pretend to more cultural knowledge than they actually possess: They’re fauxsisticates. Fauxsisticates might be more inclined to awkwordplay, “Microstyle” author Christopher Johnson’s word for when new words’ sounds don’t go together well, especially because of syllable emphasis mismatch.
Some new words are more technical. Kate Greene uses the word technoschmerz, the emotional pain (schmerz comes from a German word meaning “pain”) caused by difficult interactions with electronic gadgets or unhelpful websites. If you’ve ever felt your cellphone was out to get you, you’ve suffered from technoschmerz. Michele Mandrioli created the word anameteorologism, analogous to anachronism, in which weather inappropriate to the time or place is included in a story or image (her example is Nativity scenes that include snow . . . unlikely in Bethlehem). You may not have reason to refer to pint-size liquor bottles that often, but if you do you’ll appreciate knowing that Jemaleddin Cole calls them weepers: “the sad, drinking-alone counterpart of a growler of beer.” (A growler is an older word for a pail or pitcher of beer, now used for a half-gallon jug.) Are you trying to hew to a vegan diet but having trouble committing? You might need Lauren Gawne’s new word, vaguen. And anyone who hears Kate Chmiel’s word exstrudel will know exactly the kind of mass-produced apple pie meant. Kevin Sullivan uses thelcome, a blend of “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” as a reply to any “complimentary thank you” (as in “thank you for being so helpful” — “oh, thelcome”).
If you’ve invented a new word that satisfies all the FUDGE factors but the ones that require publicity, e-mail it to me at email@example.com. You might just have a chance to see it in wider circulation.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.