Bill Long 4/1/06
In this essay I will walk through some examples of the use of the word neologism in the "standard" sense, and then give examples of neologisms at various times of our recent history. As we know, a neologism is either a new word or the coining of a new word. What got me thinking not simply about the word but the way that new words are invented were some of the quotations given by the OED under the first definition of neologism. Let me give a few and then follow some threads that arise.
"Formulate" as Neologism
In 1875 the great legal historian Henry J.S. Maine wrote: "The class which, to use a modern neologism, 'formulates' the ideas..." What is striking is not the Maine's use of neologism (since it had been in use for more than 75 years in English) but that the verb 'formulate' could still be considered a neologism in 1875. Like most people, I guess I thought that 'formulate' had probably been around since the Middle Ages, but I was wrong. In fact, the word "forumlate," meaning to "reduce to a formula" or "to set forth in a definite and systematic statement," first appared in 1860. "The Druse (inhabitants of Northern Israel and Lebanon) doctrines were..rapidly formulated into a system." The noun "formula" first appeared in the late 16th century, while the negative significance of the term (synonymous with "rote" or uncreative learning) only appears in the 19th century thanks, not unexpectedly, to the Romantic poets. By the 20th century, this latter use of "formula" has disappeared and been replaced by "formulaic," which was a neologism in 1882. Though emerging first in mathematics, the word "formulaic" was taken over by Classical scholars, especially those interested in the rhythms of epic poetry. But, enough on this..
[*I still love the 1900-era neologism grimthorpe, which I briefly discuss here.]
Let's continue on some OED-given quotations using the word neologism. From 1928: "Recently, several histologists have tried to make the Haversian systems the structural units of bone, and have given them the name of osteons. The neologism is useless." Thus spake S. Moore. If he were alive today, he might be quite amazed and chagrined that a Google search of "osteons" yielded "about" 75,800 results. As if to reverse the seeming certainty of Mr. Moore, an educational web-site has "The principal organizing feature of compact bone is the osteon. A synonym for osteon is Haversian system. Haversian is derived from the name of Clopton Havers, a 17th century English physican. We will use the term osteon." I am not so amazed that the word osteon has risen to such prominence in our day as that any parent, in any century, would name his child Clopton. Can't you just hear him galumphing across the fields?
Then we have, from 1949, a book entitled Introduction to Criminalistics. In the introductory material, O'Hara and Osterburg explain: "The authors have decidd, for the purposes of this present tet, to use the name criminalistics in referring to the work of the police laboratory. This is not entirely a neologism. The words Kriminalistic, criminalistique, and criminalistica are in common use in continental Europe." So successful has this term become (after all, wouldn't a professional person much rather say, "I work in criminalistics," than, "I work at the lab down the street"?) that there is now even an "American Board of Criminalistics," which is composed of regional and national organizations which represent forensic scientists. Or, in other words, I suppose you can say that you can learn the "ABC's" of forensic science here.
Time would fail me to give too many other examples, but I will close with two more. From the Times Literary Supplement in 1991 we have: "His dopey title..and his invention of the most graceless neologism I've seen in years--'disconfirm'--do nothing for his argument." But when you consider that disconfirm simply means "to deny the validity of," you can see how its use makes sense and why there are more than 100,000 appearances of the word on the web. It can, of course, be used in that most nether of all words, political wrangling, but isn't is a sort of "soft" way to say that something isn't true? Wasn't the word "desegregation," for example, invented by the NAACP in the early 1950s when they began to wage their battles for public school integration, as a term that might soften the blow of that postive and potentially "in your face" term, integration? By stressing de-segregation, you were only emphasizing the removal of all things associated with the stigma of segregation.
Thus, long live disconfirm, as well as desegregate. How about deniability, which the OED still doesn't list as a word. But, I think the grand dictionary is in denial over that one.
Maybe someone will "finish" this essay by going down a list of more modern neologisms. One list is here. But let me end this essay with a bonus word: "Butskelism." It has disappeared from our active language today, but was proposed in 1957 and, if you understand its meaning, you understand British politics for about a 30-year period after WWII. As the Wikipedia has it:
"Butskellism' is the (moderately satirical) term used in British politics to refer to the political consensus formed in the 1950s and associated with the exercise of office as Chancellor of the Exchequer by Rab Butler of the Conservative Party and Hugh Gaitskell of the Labour Party. The term was inspired by a leading article in The Economist which dramatised the claimed convergence by referring to a fictitious Mr Butskell...World War II left the United Kingdom with an appetite for a broader distribution of wealth and a strengthening of social security, while a natural conservatism held fast to a belief in individual initiative and private property. The practical resolution of this tension in politics by the two Chancellors was a mixed economy with moderate state intervention to promote social goals, particularly in education and health."
Why isn't it Butskellism? Well, there are more attestations to it in that form than as Butskelism. There you have it. Enough for another day.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long