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Why Do New Words Survive? 5 Rules

Extrapolating from a recent post of mine about Words of the Year that have faded into obscurity, a commentator with the handle “px7_mq9” offered a proposal for:

Metcalf’s Law:

As the amount of human-accessible information grows, the probability of any neologism taking hold approaches zero.

Flattering as it is to become one of those who have natural laws and diseases named after them, I must demur. I have reached no such conclusion.

But px7_mq9 is right that it’s difficult for a new word to breach the barrier of the established vocabulary. To adapt a biblical comparison, it seems easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a new word to take residence in the permanent vocabulary of a language.

Properly camouflaged, though, a camel can do it. Or maybe not. I’m no expert on camels, so let’s focus on words. I can confidently say that the odds of a neologism becoming part of our permanent vocabulary are not nearly as long as the odds of winning half-a-billion dollars with a Powerball ticket.

Every year a few hundred new words or meanings slip past the barrier and become part of the established vocabulary. Is there any way to predict which ones? As a matter of fact, I think there is. In my book Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), I identified five considerations that I modestly call “factors” rather than laws.

Words have a chance of becoming permanent if they have:

Frequency of use
Unobtrusiveness
Diversity of users and situations
Generation of other forms and meanings
Endurance of the concept

You’ll notice that I have arranged these to spell “FUDGE” with their initials, a reminder that these are tendencies, not absolute laws.

Of these five factors, the most significant is Unobtrusiveness. Consciously coined neologisms generally are in-your-face with cleverness or humor. We admire and laugh at them, but we don’t adopt them.

Sometimes, though, the cleverness and humor are forgotten, and a once-funny term becomes permanent. My favorite example is “couch potato.” For a long time after it was coined in 1976, it remained on the margin of our vocabulary. But when the atrocious pun of its coiner was forgotten, and “couch potato” simply suggested an image of a lumpy person on a couch, it became widely used.

What was that now-forgotten atrocious pun? Well, a potato is a tuber, and TV has been called the “boob tube,” so someone watching TV from a couch is a couch tuber=couch potato. Ouch!

So with the Fudge factors in mind, from among today’s new words and expressions, what’s your candidate for longevity?

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