As 2015 tiptoes in, can we guess which new words we will be casually tossing around this time next year?
“You can never predict the future with language,” the British linguist David Crystal has said. He’s probably right, but let’s try anyway. For starters, we can look at a few quixotic attempts to popularize new words and see where they might have gone awry.
One coinage is intended to solve the age-old confusion about whether “next weekend” refers to this coming weekend or the following one. If interactive designers Ivan Cash and Jeremy Knight get their way, we will simply refer to the weekend after this one as “oxt weekend.”
The website lobbying for this change to the language,oxtweekend.com, got some media attention recently, even though the site has been around since 2009. While there is scant evidence that “oxt” will catch on to mean “not this one but the next one,” it clearly fills a need. Sometimes a basic gap in English (like the lack of a third-person pronoun to refer to someone regardless of gender) can be strikingly resistant to innovation.
In October, another neologism made some news, albeit briefly. Utah state Rep. Kraig Powell filed a bill that would rewrite the state’s statutes to disallow same-sex marriage. He proposed that same-sex unions be called “pairage” rather than “marriage.” The backlash to the term was immediate, and within a few days, Mr. Powell was forced to abandon his terminological suggestion.
Finally, consider “platisher.” This ungainly blend of “platform” and “publisher” was hatched by Jonathan Glick, CEO of the startup Sulia, to describe online outlets such as Medium and BuzzFeed that are both publishers and platforms for creating content.
When Evan Hansen, a senior editor at Medium, dubs this “the worst new word of all time,” it might seem safe to assume that “platisher” is dead in the water. Then again, we heard similar gripes about the tech blend “phablet” (fusing “phone” and “tablet”), but it has been doing just fine, especially since the iPhone 6 Plus joined the phablet market.
Sometimes, as in the case of “phablet,” an odd new word can succeed despite itself. But a word consciously coined to fix a perceived shortcoming in the language, address a linguistic lacuna (like “oxt”) or make a political point (like “pairage”) is almost inevitably doomed to fail.
Coinages that catch on break free from their self-conscious origins and spread to a wide variety of contexts. I surveyed some recent contributions to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary, a user-generated collection curated by Merriam lexicographers, to see which submissions might have legs in 2015.
Several entries play on the now-ubiquitous word “text.” A “textruption” is “an interruption of a conversation caused by a text message,” a useful word indeed. Less likely to succeed is “vext,” defined as “to text by voice.” That strikes me as too similar to “vexed”; also, the components of the blend (“v-” and “-ext”) don’t adequately signal their fuller forms.
Another “text” suggestion is “textative”: “tending to text a lot.” I like how that works off the established word “talkative” (which is itself a peculiar hybrid, etymologically speaking, an Anglo-Saxon root with a Latin ending).
Those who are not quite so textative may be “techno-igno,” or “technologically ignorant.” Every generation finds new ways to disparage the non-cognoscenti, and this one just might work. But at least if you are techno-igno, you are less likely to suffer from “cybermyalgia,” or “aches, pain, and stiffness resulting from overuse of computers.”
Not every winning word is so techno-centric. From the latest Open Dictionary submissions, I have a soft spot for “curiositarian” (“a curious person”), “jerknozzle” (“an obnoxious or annoying person”) and “honkenbonkers” (“awesome, amazing”).
Even if none of these catch on, the neologizers shouldn’t feel too bad. In 1914, Gelett Burgess published “Burgess Unabridged,” a dictionary of 100 brilliant coinages, from “agowilt” (“sickening terror”) to “zobzib” (“an amiable blunderer”). A century later, a grand total of one of these Burgessisms is remembered: “blurb,” for fawning book-jacket copy. When it comes to making new words stick, we are all mere zobzibs.