Where Words Come From

Where do words come from? The dictionary’s entries arrive in their alphabetical slots through a lengthy process of vetting. Rules of acceptance require that they be fairly well accepted, at least in some significant population subset (rocket scientists or software engineers, for example), that they don’t squat precisely on the meaning territory of an existing word, that they be pronounceable, and so on. Which may explain what doomed Prince’s preferred name, above. Meanwhile, on the frontiers of language use—how you and I talk and write—whole arrays of new and often context-specific words crop up.

Since its inception, Wired has included a Jargon Watch feature for decoding the digiworld. Some of the entries are new words, and some are new uses of existing words. In this month’s issue is a new phrase laden with grim possibilities—“wi vi.” In case you aren’t yet familiar with wi vi, it’s wall-penetrating vision based on Wi-Fi signals, which “could be miniaturized into a handheld device for police and rescue workers.” Superman may be kvelling, but for the rest of us, where are those lead-lined bomb shelters when we need them?

In a disturbing story also in this month’s Wired, “Public Enemies: Social Media Is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago,” Ben Austen describes how Chicago’s youth gangs are using social media to call each other out. Insults and threats flow, couched in a very specific street slang, and people die. These teens’ YouTube videos, tweets, and Facebook posts are full of violence-related words like “drilling” (shooting someone—hey, didn’t mobsters use that one? I hear a Jimmy Cagney echo); “cobra” (a .357 Magnum); and “30-poppa” (a handgun with a 30-round clip).

Only time will tell how many of these usages will become language fixtures, but it’s easy to think of words from the past with similar paternities and all now resident in dictionary.com: “hit,” “vig,” “bit,” “byte.” “Cyberspace” itself. Writers use new words with trepidation—will they be understood twenty, ten, two years hence?

According to Orin Hargraves in his October Visual Thesaurus column, that process of lexicon expansion is difficult to document: “Even today in the Internet age, tracing the origins of linguistic innovation is a sleuth’s game.” Parallels with evolutionary biology abound. Just as our genes enable the transmission of biological information, and mutations produce life forms with new and unexpected features, words transmit cultural information, and their changes enable understanding of new cultural phenomena. If they don’t fit well into the vernacular environment, they die.

You can play games having to do with word development at Wordovators, a project involving scientists from Northwestern University and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The project is inspired by analogies between biodiversity and language diversity, and is attempting to figure out why new words become acceptable. Meanwhile, says Hargraves, “Those who think of a dictionary as an authoritative book are ever decreasing in number; more who will know it mainly as a helpful but not necessarily authoritative Internet-based service are born every minute.” This shift changes the dynamics of word-acceptance just as new crops of words continue to sprout.