How New Words Catch On

During the seasonal onslaught of retrospectives, Ben Zimmer predicted new words that 2015 will bring, and pondered why some never catch on. A great bit of fun and relief.

I say that to succeed, new terms require two things:

  1. They must roll off the tongue. If you trip and stumble over saying the new words, who is going to bother?
  2. They must be self-explanatory. The average listener needs to be able to figure out what two terms you’ve combined or what root words you’ve bastardized for this clever new use. What’s the point of a new word if it slows down communication? Beyond the purpose of excluding those “not in the know,” of course.

Ben gives the great example of a textruption, which he says is “an interruption of a conversation caused by a text message.” Easy to say, not hard to figure out. Except that it might be related to eruption: that sudden series of a dozen texts from an excited or desperate source.

Perhaps instead of combining text with interruption, it would be clearer to use a word like intrusion or disturbance. How would those play out? Textrusion? Texturbance? What about textoyance: an annoyance of texts?

Textvasion, textcursion, Tourrtexts? An invasion of, and incursion of, or a bleating of texts akin to an outburst of Tourette’s.

But they key component to Ben’s textruption term is that the person you are conversing with interrupts your conversation to pay attention to the text. Important notice: this is not necessary. You don’t have to look at the text just because it bleeted at you.

Ben, I think the word you’re looking for is jerk.

Actually, there is a third thing a new word needs to become real: use. And that happens by influence. All those words your family makes up don’t spread beyond because you don’t have influence. Your family slang (or the argot of your clique) isn’t said to enough people to spread its use widely. Unless you ARE that influential. Like Ben Zimmer.

orange section splashing chocolate on a spoon

Satisfice is one word — a piece of management jargon really — that hasn’t caught on because, I say, it 1) sounds like a mistake, and 2) tried to take the place of two perfectly good words that are satisficetory in themselves. Actually, that may illustrate yet another reason it hasn’t caught on: it’s hard to add a suffix to. It doesn’t fit smoothly into our linguistic practices.


*Satisfice is a combination of satisfactory and sufficient (suffice) that means “good enough.” God, there’s a third term that is in itself satisficetory enough. What a waste of letters.