What is Coinage?
Coinage is defined as the act or process of inventing a new word, term, phrase or expression. It is also known as Neologism. ‘Neologism’ is itself a word coined in the year 1800 from the combination of the prefix ‘neo-‘, which means ‘new’ in Greek, the word ‘logos’, which means ‘speech’ or ‘discourse’ in Greek, and the suffix ‘-ism’. However, coined words are often not totally “new”. They are at times borrowed from other languages, and sometimes new meanings are assigned to existing words.
Words are often coined to apply to new concepts. Over the past century, coinage has been an active linguistic process keeping up with the rapid scientific and technological advancement. During the second half of the last century, the number of words in the English vocabulary has nearly doubled, very much thanks to the coinage of a considerable number of newly coined scientific and technical terms that have come into use after the middle of the twentieth century.
There is also the synthesization of pre-existing concepts. Thus, due to changing trends of life, when people could not find time to have breakfast as well as lunch, they coined the word ‘brunch’. But the influence of the mass media is not to be ignored. Coinage is also often about making older terminology sound more contemporary; for instance when ‘old’ ideas are taken up in new cultural contexts. The mass media, which mostly supports popular youth culture, is the key factor in encouraging this type of coinage.
History of English Language and the ‘Accommodating’ Factor
English language pertains to the Anglo-Frisian group within the western branch of the Germanic languages, a sub-family of the Indo-European languages. It relates closely to the Frisian languages, to a lesser extent to Netherlandic (Dutch-Flemish) and the Low German (Plattdeutsch) dialects, and more distantly to Modern High German. The parent of English language, Proto-Indo-European, was spoken around five thousand years ago by nomads who are thought to have roamed by the south-east European plains. Etymologically speaking, English is a hybrid language, predisposed to imbibe new words from its different parent languages and dialects. It is estimated that more than half of the words in English either come from the French language or have a French cognate.
A Widely Spoken Language
English is spoken in more parts of the world than any other language. As the British Empire spread with colonisation, so did the English language. English became the official language of most of the British colonies, and as at present remain the primary language of several ex-colonies like North America, Canada, Australia and South Africa. In various English-speaking countries, recognizable varieties of the language have emerged, and a number of simplified English pidgins also arose in non-English-speaking societies. Neologisms are more frequent in societies that are rapidly changing – like South Africa – and that accommodate important numbers of immigrants along with their socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds – like Australia, Canada, America, and even UK. The English vocabulary is said to contain words from more than fifty countries of the world: for example Peru (‘llama’), India (‘curry’, ‘guru’), indigenous North America (‘raccoon’), aboriginal Australia (‘kangaroo’, ‘boomerang’), the Caribbean (‘barbecue’, ‘cannibal’), Africa (‘chimpanzee’, ‘zebra’), China (‘typhoon’), Japan (‘samurai’, ‘sushi’, ‘tsunami’), Russia (‘sputnik’) and Italy (‘graffiti’).
Coinage is also made easy through fast dissemination of information. Three quarters of the world’s telex, cables, mobile text messages, and mails – by post or electronic – are estimated to be in English, and the remaining one quarter is in the 2700 other languages of the world. Not to mention that the media, particularly the Internet, are dominated by the American culture and lifestyle, and by extension, the English language.
Word-building Capacity in English Language
Although some languages like Chinese have an equal world-building capacity, English is believed to have a more extensive vocabulary than any other language of the world. Several processes exist in the English language that render the creation of new words easier, while establishing patterns for further expansion. One such process is onomatopoeia, the imitation of natural sound, which has created words like burp, clink and splash. Affixation, or the addition of prefixes and suffixes, either native (mis-, -ness) or borrowed from French, Greek or Latin (ex-, -ist), is another process which facilitates the formation of new words. The combination of different words, or parts of words, is also quite common in English, for instance ‘breakfast’. The free formation of compounds (‘bonehead’, ‘livewire’, ‘downpour’) is yet another process that has added a large number of words to the English vocabulary. Similarly, blending also accounts for coinage of some new words, as for instance ‘twirl’ (‘twist’+ ‘whirl). English is a “flexible” language and it allows functional change or the use of one part of speech as if it were another. For example, the word ‘shower’ came into use as a noun much before its verb form. A similar process is back-formation, which is the formation of new words from previously existing ones, the forms of the new word denouncing its source – for example, ‘to jell’ formed from the word ‘jelly’, and ‘to televise’ from ‘television’.
Five Words which Effectively Illustrate the Mechanism of Coinage
The word graft unofficially entered the English vocabulary in the 19th century. In British English it means hard work (noun) and the act of working hard (verb), which is probably a result of functional change. Its origins are still unproven, but the most likely source is the act of digging, considered a low type of work. The root word is thought to be graaf, the imperative form of the Dutch word for digging. This contention proves the relation between borrowing from other languages and the coining of words in English. The word in question is also thought to be related to the expression used in the 19th century “spade’s graft”, which referred to “the amount of earth that one stroke of a spade will move.” This is a very interesting fact which shows that a single word may actually have been coined out of a whole phrase or expression.
In the American slang of the mid-1800s, graft simply meant ‘work’. By the late 1800s, the meaning drifted to refer to illegal work. The more contemporary, though informal, meaning of the word is bribery and other corrupt measures pursued in politics or business. This provides evidence to what has been discussed above in relation to the American influence over the media and popular culture, leading to the Americanization of English. In 1915, an American film entitled Graft was released, which made this meaning of the word popular around the world.
Graft, as a scientific term, means the transplantation of tissues from one living organism into another. This meaning of the word came into use much later, during the past century, initially in the jargon of horticulture, as the practice of affixing tissue from one plant to those of another had begun. Thus, a new meaning had been assigned to an existing word, although within the agricultural context. More recently, a surgical procedure to transplant tissue without a blood supply has been devised, and it has been termed medical grafting. Skin grafting, which is a type of organ transplant involving the skin, also became a common medical practice in the recent past. From these practices, the word Graft has acquired a new meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary, 1999 defines it as a verb which means “integrate in or attach to something else, especially inappropriately.”
Chave, which appeared in mainstream dictionaries as recently as 2005, is a mainly derogatory slang term used in the United Kingdom for a sub-cultural stereotype fixated on fashions such as gold jewellery and designer clothing. The defining features of the stereotype include clothing in the Burberry pattern – notably a now outdated discontinued baseball cap – and tracksuits, hoodies, sweatpants and a variety of other casual and sportswear of different ‘expensive’ brands. This term, which still does not appear in many dictionaries, has thus been coined to characterize a new trend in fashion and lifestyle. In fact, evolution in fashion, lifestyle and culture, including the appearance of sub-cultural groups and the design of new accessories, generates a considerable amount of coined words. Similar examples are ‘punk’, ‘grunge’, ‘bling’, and ‘gothic’, the meaning of the latter word having changed from ‘pertaining to the ancient Germanic nation’ to a literary trend characterized by psychological horror, and lately, to a sub-culture characterised by a penchant for hard rock music and gloomy dress code.
The exact source is yet unclear, but of the word Chave is thought to have been derived from ‘chauvinism’, one of the meanings of which is ‘an extravagant attachment to a particular group or school of thought’. If this is so, then the word Chave can be said to have been coined through the technique known as clipping, which is the creation of a new word that is in fact but a short form of an existing one – for example ‘telly’ and ‘coke’.
Within a very short time lapse, the meaning of the word Chave has evolved in such a way that it does not merely define the physical appearance of people belonging to this particular sub-cultural group but has even been associated with delinquency. Moreover, Chaves are tagged as being ignorant and unintelligent.
The word Sleaze, which is defined as a sense of tastelessness, of being vulgar or ‘cheap’, or being “squalid, especially in a sexual way”, is a particular example of colloquial back-formation, since the adjective ‘sleazy’, the adverb ‘sleazily’, and the noun ‘sleaziness’ were part of the English vocabulary much before the word Sleaze itself came into use. The origin of the word ‘sleazy’ has not been proven as yet but a common theory traces it to the adjective ‘Silesian’ from the eastern German province of Silesia. It is believed that the word ‘sleazy’ entered the English vocabulary in the 17th century when the fine cloth that had made the region of Silesia famous became undermined by low-grade imitations. Initially used in relation to cloth, ‘sleazy’ gradually became synonymous to ‘cheap’ or ‘shoddy’.
The coinage of the word Sleaze, on the other hand, is believed date back to 1967, and was attested as recently as 1976. According to The New York Times, the usage of the word exploded in 1980 into the political “age of sleaze,” a phrase for petty corruption that replaced a previous generation’s “mess in Washington.” Sleaze is hence of American origin and was coined as a colloquial word, like most back-formations, to identify a particular political trend marked by ‘sleaziness’. It is also interesting to note that Sleaze is also the name given to a contemporary variety of Rock music.
One possible factor which might have led to the formation of the word Sleaze is the general rule about formation of adjectives in the English language, that is adding ‘y’ to the noun to form the adjective – for example ‘frosty’ being the adjective of ‘frost’ and ‘wealthy’ the adjective of ‘wealthy’. This may have created the general impression that ‘sleazy’ is in fact the adjective of Sleaze. Words like ‘flab’ (from ‘flabby’), ‘injure’ (from ‘injury’) and ‘funk’ (from ‘funky’) are similar cases.
Liqueur is a sweet, flavoured alcoholic beverage, and the word has come into use with the invention of the beverage in a very recent past. This is an example of coinage being influenced by consumerism. The word is in fact a direct borrowing from French. In the French language, the word Liqueur is commonly used for any alcoholic drink. The appearance of the word Liqueur in the English vocabulary may have been encouraged by the fact that the word ‘liquor’ was already commonly in use. Liqueur and ‘liquor’ are both derived from the Latin word liquifacere which means “to dissolve.” The coinage of the word in question, therefore, confirms the above debated argument about the predisposition of the English language to accommodate newly coined words from other languages.
This word, as it is commonly used today, presents a classic case of ‘new meanings assigned to existing words’ as part of the coinage process. The word Gay first appeared inMiddle English, from the 13th century Anglo-French word gai, of Germanic origin, akin to the Old High German gAhi, and meant quick or sudden. In Modern English, the word was initially used as an adjective to mean ‘happy’, ‘merry’ or ‘excited’, as for example ‘in a gay mood’. Other meanings such as “keenly alive and exuberant”, “having or inducing high spirits”, “brightly coloured”, and “abounding in social or other pleasures” were equally assigned to the word. Gradually, the latter meaning evolved to connote essentially sexual pleasure. Thus, Gay became synonymous to ‘licentious’, ‘dissipated’, ‘wanton’, ‘debauched’. Presently, it is standard in its use to refer to people whose orientation is to the same sex, which is in fact a mere extension of the word’s former sexualised connotation, which also implied an unwillingness to abide by conventional or respectable sexual mores. Until recently, Gay was used essentially to denote male homosexuals, but today it encompasses both genders, although it is still more widely used for men.
What is particularly interesting about the word Gay in relation to word coinage is that the ‘new’ meaning assigned to the word, which in fact is documented as early as the 1920s, has been greatly influenced by the literary world as well as the mass media. The 1929 musical Bitter Sweet by Noel Coward, for instance, contains another use of the word in a context that strongly implies homosexuality. In the song “Green Carnation”, the title of which alludes to Oscar Wilde who always wore a green carnation and was known to be homosexual, four overdressed dandies sing:
Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation…
And as we are the reason
For the “Nineties” being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.
The British comic strip Jane was first published in the 1930s and described the adventures of Jane Gay. In 1941,the book and film The Gay Falcon were released simultaneously, with implied connotations around the homosexuality of the main protagonist. One of the many characters invented by 1950s TV comic Ernie Kovacs was a “gay-acting” poet named Percy Dovetonsils. The present meaning of the word in question had thus entered the mainstream linguistic culture.
A Concluding Note
Word formation in the English language through coinage or neologism can be as much of a methodical and calculated process adopted by linguists to create new words when the need arises, as it can be a product of pure coincidence amongst the masses. Words often need to be invented to denote new concepts, findings, inventions, products on the market, or even new cultural trends. However, it also happens that words are coined simply to add a touch of humour to a discourse, or by the literary class as part of experiments with the language. Yet it is an undeniable fact that the coining of words accounts for a large number of new words being constantly added to the language, which keeps English alive and vibrant.