I thought Daran’s entry on neologisms admitted to the language (or at least coined and offered for adoption) suggested a broader treatment of the subject (which I had already intended but was apparently beaten to the punch). English is often cited as one of the hardest languages to learn. It’s not the pronunciation or syntax that are troublesome, it’s the sheer number of words and the fact that those words are drawn from everywhere.
According to The Global Language Monitor, English has, conservatively, nearly 1 million words. French has fewer than 100,000. Why compare to French? In the Colonial Period, French was the international language of diplomacy, so one might have expected French to be more democratic than English and to survive into the modern era as the preeminent international language. However, the French have since the 1600s admitted new coin only slowly — the Academie Francais is only on its 9th edition of its dictionary — the idea being to preserve the purity of the French language, notwithstanding that French borrows heavily from Latin. There are clear strengths and weaknesses to such an approach.
So English and French, the two most recent international languages (Latin and Esperanto were previous international languages), have diametrically opposed approaches to new coin. English, especially the standard American dialect, delights in creating new words, especially the combinations of existing words German speakers are familiar with. (The word metrosexual is a good example. Smash-ups of names such as Beniffer and Brangelina are good pop examples. I also recently came across infonaut and infobahn.) Many magazines have columns devoted to new usage, like this one at Variety, especially when the usage is hip, clever, slangy, and specialized. The idiom is sometimes called slanguage or slang-chic.
Technological advance offers myriad opportunities for new coin. Richard Dawkins took credit for the word meme, whereas the origin of the word Internet is a frequent subject of folk etymology or faux origins. A site called Word Origins specializes in word and phrase etymologies. A whole category of “retronyms” are needed to distinguish older word forms from newer ones when technological change renders the older root less precise. For example, e-mail vs. snail mail, land line vs. cell phone, acoustic guitar vs. electric guitar, etc. A list of -nyms words can be found here, for those curious what to call a variety of different word categories.
English has long been a sort of bastard child of many other languages and has no apparent compunction about accepting new words from any source. To take food for an example, soup derives from French, cheese from Latin, burger from German, squash from American Indian, pie from Irish, waffle from Dutch, coffee from Arabic, chili from Spanish, soy from Japanese, etc. There’s an interesting hypothesis for why English words for meat before it’s cooked — cow, swine, sheep, and calf — are of Saxon origin whereas meat after it’s cooked — beef, pork, mutton, and veal — are of Norman origin. The idea is that Normans conquered the Saxons and the Saxons were servants who used their own words in the kitchen but had to use the Norman words at their masters’ tables.
Words and their origins go beyond idle interest. They are our very tools of thought and function as powerful metaphors for reality. Edward Sapir believed that each language constructs reality differently from other languages, which goes a long way toward explaining why mere word translation can’t begin to bridge the gaps between cultures with difference languages. Edward T. Hall refers to hidden aspects of culture — those things embedded in our metaphors — as “deep culture.” For instance, is time a line, a circle, a flow, or a dimension? Is its measurement meaningful, flexible, or irrelevant to human experience? Answers to questions such as these influence one’s cultural assumptions and whether, for instance, an appointment is kept punctually or treated casually.
One explanation for America’s preeminence in the world today, beyond the obvious natural resources at our disposal, is that as a young country, unlike regions of the world with histories stretching back millennia, we were created anew from a diverse range of languages and cultures that became a greater whole than its parts. Our national character, as described by Tocqueville for one, stems in part from the need for so many different peoples to cooperate, rely on each other, and rise above their individuality to form a nation. And we continue to see that diversity played out in our predeliction for new coin.