Friday, February 25, 2005

Neologisms -- i. e., new words

A friend on a message board I frequent wrote the following today:

Mike -- you may have heard how "downsizing" became "rightsizing." Well, now "outsourcing" is being supplanted by "right-sourcing" (don't send jobs to India, send them to Idaho! LOL) Sometime, I'd like to hear your thoughts about neologisms -when are they a great idea and when they are stupid.

Neologisms are simply new words. They are created every day, I would imagine, in this fast moving world. Scientists, for instance, routinely create new technical terms as they discover new phenomena for which there are no appropriate existing words. The word quark comes immediately to mind.

The phenomenon referred to as "outsourcing" was initially used in my experience for cases in which a manufacturer, instead of building a part "in house," would acquire it from another manufacturer, possibly in a different city or state. These days not only manufactured parts but whole products or even services like programing are outsourced, sometimes to businesses outside the United States. It was used frequently in the last Presidential campaign.

Some people who fashion themselves as protectors of the English Language dislike such creations. Yesterday, while surfing, I found the following amusing entry in a blog:
"Utilization" and "utilize" are a blot on the English language. They are polysyllabic abominations spawned by the regulatory/consulting complex, suffering, as well it should, from an inferiority complex that renders it too insecure to use the perfectly good word "use."
Persons taking this sort of position are doomed to a life of linguistic disappointment.

Back to neologisms: Successful communication requires both ease of expression (a speaker desideratum) and ease of understanding (a hearer desideratum). In the case of the creation and acceptance of a neologism like "outsourcing" speakers of English satisfied the criterion of ease of expression, for there is no simple existing way of communicating the notion "acquiring goods or services from an outside source" and we certainly don't want to use a long phrase like this every time we want to refer to the phenomenon of outsourcing. On hearing it for the first time, in a sentence like "We are outsourcing our widgets to Ohio Widgets," I suspect that most people would instantly understand what is being communicated. And in that case, the neologism also satisfies the criterion of ease of understanding.

I had not heard of the notion "rightsourcing." I presume it means "acquiring the right amount of something from another source" or possibly "acquiring something from the right source." Either is a credible initial interpretation for a speaker hearing it for the first time. But that means the neologism doesn't satisfy the criterion of ease of understanding for this criterion involves"correct understanding" of course. I suspect that this neologism might survive within the business community but not come to be used widely in the press or by ordinary people. I can't imagine hearing something like "We must ecourage our business community to rightsource goods and services not outsource them" in the next Presidential campaign.

In addition to the criteria of ease of expression and ease of understanding, there are other factors that are involved in the successful introduction of a new word into a language. Some years ago, the term of address "Ms" was created to be the female equivalent to "Mr." It was largely done for political reasons as a part of the feminist movement. "Mrs" and "Miss" give away the marital status of a woman whereas "Mr" doesn't do the same in the case of men. When "Ms" was first introduced, I thought business world would jump for joy, for with this term available, they would no longer have to guess as the marital status of a woman when addressing a letter or package to them. This incredibly useful neologism was shot down by married women who were proud of their status and didn't want to see their status diminished by the use of "Ms."

New words can also fail for other reasons. We are unlikely to want to use ugly looking or bad sounding words. As I observed in What is Linguistics?, People routinely refer to others who speak a number of languages as linguists though the "proper" word for this is "polyglot." The first word that comes to mind when I hear that word is "pollywog," another term for a tadpole. It is no wonder that polyglot is used only by linguists and others who want to distinguish people who study the nature of lanugage from those who speak a number of languages. In this case, however, we are not dealing with a neolgoism but with a word that is on life support.

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Anonymous Norris said...

Actually, we did hear "rightsourcing" mentioned.. by both sides. "Right-sizing" was more of a euphemism in practice - we're not slashing jobs, we're moving the company to the 'right' amount of human resources. Yeah, right (pun intended)...

In my world, "entrepreneur" is an odd case (A French word that only recently is used in France, LOL) - it has also been used so widely that you need to actually define the term for the readers of your research paper. There are other quirks, such as there's no comparable word in Greek or Latin, but there is in Hebrew, Aramaic (sorta) and Hindi. I have NO idea what that means.
p.s. Could that person who said "polysyllabic abomination" been... TIC?

5:48 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

The euphemisms for firing people get ever more elaborate. In 1995, when I spent some time in England, the word in vogue was "redundant" as in "Your position has become redundant."

Firing someone constitutes an extreme instance of threatening his/her "positive face" (i. e., desire to be valued). Normally, when we threaten someone's positive face, we usually try to mitigate it in some way, as by including an apology like "I'm really sorry but..." or paying respect to their positive face even as one threatens it by saying something like "You are a great guy and have done great things for us, but..." or by giving an explanation like "The company has lost several big accounts and as a result..." or by using an euphemism like "we're going to have to let you go."

Since businesses don't want to seem to be bad guys, they also use euphemisms, usually some sort of bizzare expression like "downsizing" or "rightsizing" and the like. Certainly not "job slashing."

No one is fooled for a second by the use of these euphemisms and the fact that corporate executives feel the need to use them says a lot about their lack of respect for people's intelligence.

9:02 AM

Anonymous Norris said...

Mike, is there a peril when euphemisms are used so much that the users start to forget they are, wel, euphemisms?

I mean "rightsourcing" is pretty stupid, since all it means is outsourcing done properly (in one case, they outsourced not to India but... Idaho! LOL) But that's trivial - are there cases where the euphemistic neologism displaced a more accurate term? Orwell's 1984 comes to mind or Bradbury's book-burning "firemen" but what in real life?

11:53 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Norris, I think this happens all the time.

I found a particularly funny instance of this at the blog this phenomenon,where the blogger says "Lately I have been sort of fanatical about things like substituting "I have to go to the bathroom" for "I have to use the restroom," even in cases where I feel that I am among my betters and ought to use my Fancy Manners.." \t appears that our blogger doesn't know that "go to the restroom" is a euphemism.

Now this is hardly a euphemism of Orwellian dimensions. One that is is "pacification," a term Orwell himself cited in his paper Politics and the English Language if my memory is correct. It was used during the Vietnam War by the military and by journalists. In this case, I don't know if there even is a single word that accurately and brutally refers to the activity of pacification (i.e., killing some people and removing others to "pacified" areas, if I may use another euphemism.)

12:45 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

I apologize for my sloppy composition. I was trying to manually introduce a link and didn't go back to proof read what I had said. I trust readers can figure out what I was to say at the top of the last comment.

12:50 PM

Blogger language said...

I don't think "Ms" is as dead as you imply. Quite a few women still use it (even married women!). Feminism may be down but it's not out.

language hat

6:10 PM

Anonymous Audrey said...

The term "neologism" is also used in aphasia studies, for when patients produce an utterance that is not recognized as a meaningful word and is produced by failing to reach the target word. An example of this would be a patient who produces "baka" for "hammock". This use of neologism satisfies the ease of expression constraint, but not necessarily ease of understanding (for the examiner or listener). The word usually ceases to exist after the instance in which it is produced; it certainly doesn't pick up semantic reference. Are we seeing two different uses of the term? Or are we seeing a different phenomenon altogether?

9:44 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Audrey, your "madscientist" site is a gas.

Your question about the status of "baka" turns on how we want to define the term "word," which is notoriously difficult to define. Is "hold'em" (of poker fame) one word or two words? Is it a phonetic word but not a lexial word? Is "isn't" one or two words. This is a bit tougher case.

I wonder if people in your field find it useful to see productions like "baka" as a species of conventional speech errors -- the errors of children during language acquisition (as with my daughter's "brekstress" for "breakfast"), malapropisms, and mispronuciations of various sorts. You suggest that the speaker produced "baka" instead of his/her target word. If so, then it might be seen as a kind of malapropism where the word produced just happens not to occur in the dictionary unlike the case of a malapropism. Or, it could be a speech (phonetic) error where the substitutions are a bit wilder than might occur with you or me.

I do think that a word to be a word would have to have a certain permanance. But I can see how a neuroscientist might want to take a different view.

11:14 AM

Blogger Brian Miller said...

Have you read 'Lost for Words: The mangling and manipulation of the English language' by John Humphrys?

It's right up your alley.

10:55 PM

Blogger Nathan said...

Ms certainly hasn't become universal as its creators probably hoped, but it's not dead either. I remember a guideline for journalists that came out a few years ago. The advice was, when referring to the wives of the leaders of our three main parties to use Miss Booth (Labour), Ms Kennedy (Lib. Dem.) and Mrs Hague.

Personally, I think that the fact that it is now considered to be a woman's choice how she is referred to means that "Ms" has achieved what it set out to. Indeed, I don't think any movement has had more success with activist neologisms than feminism.

7:16 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

A very interesting perspective on the success of "Ms." Nice.

9:41 AM

Blogger Lena said...

I'm really intereted in neologisms in advertising as I have to write a paper about it in university. Can you help to find information? and examples? Give some links?


5:42 AM


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