A neologism [nee-ol-uh-jiz-uhm] is a newly coined term, word, or phrase, that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language. Neologisms are often directly attributable to a specific person, publication, period, or event. The term is first attested in English in 1772, borrowed from French ‘néologisme.’ In psychiatry, the term is used to describe the use of words that have meaning only to the person who uses them, independent of their common meaning.

This tendency is considered normal in children, but in adults can be a symptom of psychopathy or a thought disorder (e.g. schizophrenia). People with autism also may create neologisms. Additionally, use of neologisms may be related to aphasia (sudden loss of language comprehension) acquired after brain damage resulting from a stroke or head injury. In theology, a ‘neologism’ is a relatively new doctrine (e.g. Transcendentalism). In this sense, a neologist is one who proposes either a new doctrine or a new interpretation of source material such as religious texts.

A ‘stunt word’ is a neologism created to produce a special effect, or to attract attention. Examples are gloatation, titterosity, scrumtrulescent, malamanteau, and truthiness. Some stunt words are portmanteau words, and many are also based on malapropisms (an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance). Neologisms are often created by combining existing words or by giving words new and unique suffixes or prefixes. Portmanteaux are combined words that are sometimes used commonly. ‘Brunch’ is an example of a portmanteau word (breakfast + lunch). Neologisms also can be created through abbreviation or acronym, by intentionally rhyming with existing words or simply through playing with sounds.

Neologisms can become popular through memetics, by way of mass media, the Internet, and word of mouth, including academic discourse in many fields renowned for their use of distinctive jargon, and often become accepted parts of the language. Other times, however, they disappear from common use just as readily as they appeared. Whether a neologism continues as part of the language depends on many factors, probably the most important of which is acceptance by the public. It is unusual, however, for a word to enter common use if it does not resemble another word or words in an identifiable way. When a word or phrase is no longer ‘new,’ it is no longer a neologism. Neologisms may take decades to become ‘old,’ however. Opinions differ on exactly how old a word must be to cease being considered a neologism.

Neologisms come from popular literature in different forms. Sometimes, they are simply taken from a word used in the narrative of a book; a few representative examples are: ‘grok’ (to achieve complete intuitive understanding), from ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert A. Heinlein; ‘McJob,’ from ‘Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture’ by Douglas Coupland; ‘cyberspace,’ from ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson; ‘nymphet’ from ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov. Other times the title of a book becomes the neologism, for instance, ‘Catch-22’ (from the title of Joseph Heller’s novel). Alternatively, the author’s name may become the neologism, although the term is sometimes based on only one work of that author. This includes such words as ‘Orwellian’ (from George Orwell, referring to his novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’) and ‘Ballardesque’ or ‘Ballardian’ (from J.G. Ballard, author of ‘Crash’). The word ‘sadistic” is derived from the cruel sexual practices Marquis de Sade described in his novels. Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’ was the container of the ‘Bokononism’ family of nonce words.

Another category is words derived from famous characters in literature, such as ‘quixotic’ (referring to the titular character in ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’ by Cervantes), a ‘scrooge’ (from the main character in Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’), or a ‘pollyanna’ (from Eleanor H. Porter’s book of the same name). James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake,’ composed in a uniquely complex linguistic style, coined the words ‘monomyth’ and ‘quark.’

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