How new words come to be

They travel from abroad and migrate from the lab. Sometimes, old words get new meanings; other new ones are just made up!

Dost thou understand the English language? It has changed a lot over time, as new words come into use and old words disappear.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online contains more than half a million words and definitions and adds at least 1,000 more every three months. English is the second-most-used language in the world (Chinese is first), and new words and usages are developed everywhere it is spoken. Here are some ways a word can end up as part of our language.

Foreign words settle in to stay

Languages are always borrowing words from one another, even if they change the pronunciation and spelling a little. Many times the new word comes along with the new item, such as spaghetti (Italian), camel (Hebrew), and chocolate (Mexican-Indian by way of Spanish). Ketchup (sometimes spelled catsup) comes from the Chinese sauce pronounced "ke-tsiap." Since Chinese doesn't use an alphabet like English, English users adopted different spellings that are still used today. Here are some more words from other languages:

German – kindergarten, blitz, poodle

French – salad, restaurant, garage

Spanish – rodeo, tornado, potato

Italian – piano, carnival, studio

Arabic – algebra, safari, sugar

Combine words to make new ones

Some words are formed from combining other words, such as go-cart, sailboat, and raincoat. Sometimes the original words were in another language. "Tele" is Greek for "far," and "scope" is Greek for "seeing," so a telescope is a far-seeing device. Here are some other combinations:


astron (Greek for 'star') + nautes (Greek for 'sailor') = star sailor


auto (Greek for 'by oneself') + mobile (Latin for 'movable') = moves by itself


cosmos (Greek for 'universe') + nautes (Greek for 'sailor') = sailor of the universe


inter (Latin for 'between') + active (from Latin 'to act') = acting between

Words that are noises

Some words imitate the sounds they make, such as boom, hum, tweet, pop, whizz, and whisper. This is called onomatopoeia (on-oh-MATH-oh-PEE-yuh). Can you think of some more? Crash! Bang! Slam!

Strung-together names

An acronym (AK-roh-nim) is a word formed from the first letters of a string of words:

Radar – RAdio Detecting And Ranging.

Laser – Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Scuba – Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Sonar – SOund NAvigation and Ranging.

Some words aren't really acronyms, but are just shortened versions that are quicker and easier to say, such as "hi-tech" for high technology or "bye" for goodbye, which is itself an already shortened form of the phrase "God be with ye."

Brand names become ordinary words

A consumer product can become so popular that its brand name is used for that object, no matter who manufactures it. Jell-O is only one type of gelatin, but this brand is so well-known that people often call any gelatin-like substance jello. The same is true for Kleenex (for any paper tissue) and Xerox (meaning "to photocopy"). Manufacturers go to great lengths to try to keep their brand names from becoming generic terms, but often the battle is lost. Styrofoam, linoleum, and Popsicle all began as brand names.

Borrowing words from literature

Writers have the advantage in adding new words to the language. They can put a new word in a book and it will be printed and distributed for everyone to see and adopt if they choose. Czech writer Karel Capek wrote a play in 1920 about mechanical creatures who work for humans. He called them robots, from the Czech word "robota," which means forced labor. The play was translated into English in 1923 and "robot" entered our language to stay.

And now anyone who has read a Harry Potter book knows all about Quidditch, even though there's really no such sport.

New names for new discoveries

Sometimes scientists and inventors get to make up a name for their new discoveries, such as neutrino, quark, and quasar. Inventions sometimes carry the name of their inventor or the person who makes its use common. The sandwich is named after John Montague, fourth Earl of Sandwich, who lived in the 1700s and popularized the idea of eating cold meat between slices of bread. An annual horse race was founded in 1780 by the twelfth Earl of Derby, and now "derby" is attached to a number of races, including the Kentucky Derby and even the Soap-Box Derby.

And look at the Internet! It has spawned such words as website, homepage, e-mail, and online.

Old words put on new meanings

Sometimes an old word takes on a new meaning. When English-speaking people first began flying light wooden frames with cloth or paper stretched across them, they noticed that these objects flew in a way similar to a hawk-like bird called a kite. So they called the devices kites.

When computers were first being developed, some programmers found their computer was not working right. They finally traced the problem to a bug (a moth, actually) that had landed on the circuitry. Now "bug" has become a common term for a programming problem, even when they aren't talking about insects in the microchips.

Jargon goes mainstream

Some words are specific to a job (countdown), sport (three-pointer), or a particular area of science or technology (reboot). People who aren't familiar with specialized terms may think others are speaking a foreign language. (For example; "This zip drive needs a 'scuzzy' [SCSI] port, but you can download to a CD instead.") But the terms may be adopted by the general public as well, with their original or a slightly changed meaning.

For example: Have you ever heard of a black hole? To scientists, it's the name of a cosmological phenomenon. To the rest of us, it's a place into which our homework or socks from the dryer disappear.

How could you add a word?

Could you make up a word to put into the language yourself? You could try. If other people liked your word, they might use it and spread it around. But you can't count your word as official until it appears in a dictionary.

One of the most comprehensive English dictionaries in the world is the Oxford English Dictionary, published by the Oxford University Press in England. The complete 20-volume dictionary contains definitions of words, information on their origins, and quotations to illustrate their proper usage and meanings.

The dictionary is also available online, which makes it easier to update on a regular basis.

The Oxford University Press maintains the Oxford Reading Programme, which has a staff of readers who provide editors with quotations showing how words are being used. Dictionary editors research how the word came about and where it is being used. Then they decide if a new word is familiar enough to be included in the dictionary.

If you'd like to learn more about how words are used, you can visit their website at You'll find quotes, questions and answers, a "jargon buster," and a place to submit questions of your own about our ever-changing English language.

The mystery of the famous word collector

One of the greatest contributors to the first Oxford English Dictionary was also one of its most unusual.

In 1879, Oxford University in England asked Prof. James Murray to serve as editor for what was to be the most ambitious dictionary in the history of the English language. It would include every English word possible and would give not only the definition but also the history of the word and quotations showing how it was used.

This was a huge task, so Dr. Murray recruited volunteers from Britain, the United States, and the British colonies to search every newspaper, magazine, and book ever written in English. Hundreds of volunteers responded, including William Chester Minor. Dr. Minor was an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War and was now living in England. He gave his address as "Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire," 50 miles from Oxford.

Minor joined the army of volunteers sending words and quotations to Murray. Over the next 17 years, he became one of the staff's most valued contributors.

But he was also a mystery. Despite many invitations, he would always decline to visit Oxford. So in 1897, Murray finally decided to travel to Crowthorne himself. When he arrived, he found Minor locked in a book-lined cell at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

Murray and Minor became friends, sharing their love of words. Minor continued contributing to the dictionary, sending in more than 10,000 submissions in 20 years. Murray continued to visit Minor regularly, sometimes taking walks with him around the asylum grounds.

In 1910, Minor left Broadmoor for an asylum in his native America. Murray was at the pier to wave goodbye to his remarkable friend.

Minor died in 1920, seven years before the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was completed. The 12 volumes defined 414,825 words, and thousands of them were contributions from a very scholarly and dedicated asylum inmate.

Word books for further study

'The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology,' edited by Charles Onions (Oxford University Press, 1983) is a good reference source for the origin of words, but it's not exactly light reading. Older readers would enjoy it though.

For lighter fare, you might try these:

'Words Can Tell: A Book About Our Language,' by Christina Ashton (J. Messner, 1988).

'Where in the Word? Extraordinary Stories Behind 801 Ordinary Words,' by David Muschell (Prima Publishing, 1990).

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