Thoughts on the Growth of Language 4: Neolidesm

In an earlier blog I suggested that when a word from an established language — called the donor-language — is transferred — to a host-language, e.g., from French to English, the transfer ensures that the host-language acquires a new and unique word. It may give us two or more words whose reference overlaps as illustrated by referring to a “marathon” and “a long-distance run”. The two terms overlap in meaning and occasionally can be substituted for each other. In its new location such imported words lack ambiguity, a positive and desirable attribute. Ambiguity, as the reader will know, is often seen as an enemy of effective communication.

Several methods have already been tried to reduce ambiguity in daily speech, including borrowing a particular word from another (foreign) language, the so-called donor-language. When a transfer is made from the donor to the host language the (pilfered?) word is usually assigned a restricted meaning which — in a sense — tethers it. One cannot guarantee for how long this “remedy” will work and thereby stave of problems arising from ambiguity! We should keep in mind too that many language lovers (hobbyists?) like to “extend” the meaning of words, and actively look for new uses for these. The cure for confusion described here is known to work at least for a limited time.

But it has also become quite common to adapt an existing word drawn from a home (host) language and to assign it a new meaning which may — in the minds of most users — be unrelated to its earlier meaning. An example is the common verb *hit*, as in “I was hit by a flying saucer whilst walking down Mulberry Street” compared to “Miss Mabel was a hit at the fashion-show in her new bikini swim-suit”. The use of hit here is significantly different from, for example, “Mabel was hit at the fashion show by an unruly, over-enthusiastic member of the 21st Century Prude League”!

We propose to call all newly defined words in a language as cases of *neolidesm*, a word constructed from neo (new) and idein, whose root according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the Greek ἰδέα, or ἰδεῖν or idein, translated as “to see”. The etymology of the new word is not important in itself: it could be borrowed from another language or created from bits and pieces of the home-language too. However, the new word stands in contrast to a *neologism*, a word which refers to the special case where the word’s origin is independent of its newness as an idea, but where its novelty as a word is of interest to us That is, the word is unquestionably new in the language, but not necessarily the idea to which the word is said to refer. It also could be purely manufactured as is Mary Poppin’s almost unpronounceable creation *supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*. To the best of my knowledge this word has no meaning yet! The term *Jabberwocky*, however, is another matter. We are told that it is the name of a creature which is vaguely described, but not defined by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”, (1872) in the following lines:
Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
the frumious Bandersnatch!

It could be argued that without an assigned meaning and/or without a reasonably full description of the object designated by a sounded word, sounds made or uttered during a spoken language — like “ah” or “mm” — are not components of the language either. I have seen many Jabberwockies in my life, but could not describe the creature! Could you?

Reprise: new words are continously being introduced into most modern languages, but their meaning may derive from several practises, including the practise of utterning a sound and concurrently pointing to some object or to some ongoing event, like a game of football or a cow chewing its cud, which the on-line Merriman Dictionary states is “the food that an animal (such as a cow) brings back up from its stomach into its mouth to be chewed again”!

Now If the emphasis is on the meaning of a word for a group of speakers, this should be classified as a case of neolidesm whereas if the word is just new, regardless of its origin or meaning, it is a case of being a neologism. The clarification given in Wikipedia can hardly be improved:

A neologism (/niːˈɒlədʒɪzəm/; from Greek νέο- néo-, “new” and λόγος lógos, “speech, utterance”) is the name for a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but which has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language.

So it is its relative newness that counts!

Here, however, follows the case of a new word which is not borrowed from another language but which was deliberately designed and introduced into everyday English — and probably is now also part of many other languages: pasteurized. If asked what does this word mean — no matter how pronounced in any language — the answer is simple because it is a “designer-term”, therefore akin to being “proprietary”! More recently another strategy for introducing new terms surfaced and is now increasingly used in some sciences. It too was designed to defeat ambiguity and to restrict what elsewhere I have called an “analogical spread” in the meaning of a word. The new strategy consists in adding and assigning a number to a word whose meaning is already fairly well understood, and which therefore could not develop multiple meanings. The example cited was Carbon-14. This term (word) is used in some areas of chemistry but not (yet — ever?) for naming, since in human societies naming has become a sacred act! Note, however, we also carry our social security numbers as an ID (footnote: For more on numbering as a method of identification see my earlier blog). In the nature of the case the combination of a name and a number is most unlikely to “spread” its meaning, but is more likely to be replaced (or renumbered?) should it no longer serve its earlier defined mission. This happens frequently in science.

So I think we have recently made several advances to our former socially driven habit of borrowing words excessively from “foreign” sources, including from (high prestige?) languages which are no longer in wide use, like Greek or Latin, but which will meet both our social and our epistemic demands for terms by which we can identify facets of our “universe”. New words are a “dime a dozen” — and seem to appear from everywhere to suit different social occasions and but also the demands of our knowledge (epistemic) needs. But what occasionally disturbed our slumber was the discovery that words may be around which can be sufficiently modified in use and meaning by relying primarily on our irrepressible propensity to distinguish matters effectively on the basis — but not only — of their contexts. It is — to give an analogy — as if humans have a refined ability to add or to subtract from a given context by selecting from it elements and thereby — inadvertently — creating singular items from something with has many meanings. It helps to enlarge the number of discriminable events that make up our world. Furthermore when we do so, we enrich our world — and then call it a form of creativity.

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