Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Word-making In English

( Originally Published 1912 )

It is not merely by borrowing from abroad, or by discriminations between already existing words, that our vocabulary is increased. New words can easily be created in English, and are being created almost every day; and a large part of our speech is made up of terms we have formed for ourselves out of old and familiar material. One of the simplest ways of forming a new word is that of making compounds, the joining together of two or more separate terms to make a third. This method of making words was very commonly employed in Greek, but was rare in classical Latin, as it is rare in French. n German it is ex-tremely common, where almost any words can be joined together, and compounds are formed, often of enormous length. In the facility of forming compounds, English stands between the French and German; the richness of old English in this respect has been modified by French and Latin influence; and here, as in vocabulary, English is partly Teutonic and partly French. The most common of our English compounds are those in which two nouns are joined together, the second expressing a general meaning, which is somehow modified or limited by the first. Thus, to take modern instances, a railway is a way formed by rails, a steamboat is a boat propelled by steam, a school board is a board which controls schools, a board school is one of the schools managed by that board. Words compounded in this way preserve fora while the sense of their separate existence; soon, however, they come to be spelt with a hyphen, like lawn-tennis or motor-car, and before long they are joined into one word like rainfall or goldfield and sometimes we cease to think of them as compounds at all, and the form of one or other of the words is forgotten and transformed, as day's eye has become daisy, and Christ's mass Christmas.

But compounds can be formed by joining together almost any parts of speech, and sometimes more than two words are combined in a compound, as in the old hop-o'-my-thumb, and in the XIXth Century rough-and-ready, hard-and-fast, daddy-long-legs. We have also in English a curious kind of compound verb, where an adverb is used with a verb without actual union, as to give up, to break out, etc. in this kind of formation the XIXth Century was especially rich, and gave birth to many. such modern expressions as to boil down, to go under, to hang on, to back down, to own up, to take over, to run across. Verbs of this kind, though often colloquial, add an idiomatic power to the language, and enable it to express many fine distinctions of thought and meaning.

On the whole, however, the formation of new compounds is not of enormous importance to modern English; and the language has certainly lost some of its original power in this respect. Compounds, moreover, tend to die out more quickly than other words; the Genius of the Language seems to prefer a simple term for a simple notion; and a word made up of two others, each of which vividly suggests a separate idea, is apt to seem awkward to us unless we can conveniently forget the original meanings. Word-composition really belongs to an earlier stage of language, where the object of speech was to appeal to the imagination and feelings rather than to the intellect; and we find, perhaps, the most vivid and idiomatic of English compounds in words of abuse and contempt like licks pit*, skinflint, swillpot, spitfire. The excitement of passion heats more readily than anything else the crucible of language in which is fused, ready for coining, the material for new words; and the abusive epithets of a language are always among its most picturesque and most imaginative words.

For the poets also, who, like the vituperators, make their appeal to feeling and imagination, this method of making words is most valuable; and, being allowed great freedom in this respect, they have, by their beautiful and audacious compounds, added some of the most exquisite and expressive phrases to the English language. Chaucer and the earlier poets hardly employed this method of coining epithets; but with the influence of the classical renaissance, and the translations from Homer and the Greek poets, whose works are so rich in compound epithets, this method of expression was largely adopted, and has added t& the language many compound adjectives which are little poems in themselves—Shakespeare's young-eyed cherubims, for instance, or Milton's grey-hooded even, or coral-paven floor.

The commonest way of making new words is by what is called derivation. We are all familiar with this method by which a prefix or suffix is added to an already existing word, as coolness is formed by adding the suffix ness to cool, or in distrust dis is prefixed to trust. Many of these affixes we know to have been originally separate words, as doni, in freedom, kingdom, etc., represents the Anglo-Saxon (dom, "statute, jurisdiction," and hood in childhood, priesthood, etc., is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Md, meaning "person," "quality," or "rank." Our affixes, however, are no longer words by themselves, but carriers of general ideas, which we add to words to modify their meaning. Thus, if we take the old English word cloud, we find a verb formed from it, to becloud, adjectives in cloudy, clouding, clouded, an adverb in cloudily, a substantive in clouding, an abstract noun in cloudiness, and a diminutive in cloudlet. Or if a word like critic is borrowed, and finds a soil favourable to its development, it soon puts forth various parts of speech, an adjective critical, an adverb critically, substantives abstract and concrete, in criticalness and criticism, and a verb in criticize, which in its turn begets a noun and adjective in criticizing, and another agent-noun in criticizer.

A full list of the affixes in English will be found in any book of English philology or grammar, with their history and the rules, as far as there are definite rules, for their correct usage. They can be divided into two classes -those of native and those of foreign origin. The most ancient of our derivative words, the small handful from the rich Anglo-Saxon vocabulary which has survived, are all, of course, formed from native affixes, and many of these affixes, ness, less, ful, ly, y, etc are still in living use. But when in the XIIIth Century a large number of French words were borrowed, a great many of these brought with them their derivatives, formed on French or Latin models, and, as Mr. Bradley says, "when such pairs of words as derive and derivation, esteem and estimation, laud and laudation, condemn and condemnation, had found their way into the English vocabulary, it was natural the suffix alien should be recognized by English speakers as an allowable means of forming `nouns of action' out of verbs." n this way a large part of the French machinery of derivation has been naturalized in English-we freely form other nouns in age (porterage, etc.); in ment (acknowledgment, amazement, atonement) : in ery (bakery, brewery, etc.). We form adjectives, too, in al, ous, ose, ese, ary, able, etc.; verbs in. fy, ate, ize, and ish. These French suffixes are for the most part derived from the Latin; ard, however, in coward, etc., and esque in picturesque, came into French from a German source; ade, in arcade, balustrade, crusade, is from the Spanish or Italian; while ism, ize, ic, and the feminine suffix ess are ultimately derived through Latin from the Greek.

It is often maintained by the purists of language that these borrowed affixes should only be used for foreign words, that for our own native words only our native machinery should be employed. Letters continually appear in the newspapers denouncing this or that new formation as a hybrid, and begging all respectable people to help in casting it out from the language. There is, no doubt, a certain truth in the point of view; and the linguistic sense of all of us would be rightly shocked by such an adjective as fishic or fishous for fishy, or such a noun as dampment for dampness. But a little examination of the linguistic usage will show that no such rule can be absolutely enforced. Latin; borrowed Greek affixes, French borrowed them from German, and freely used them in forming new French words; many of our noblest old English words, as atonement, amazement, forbearance, fulfilment, goddess, etc., are formed by adding foreign suffixes to English words; while English suffixes have been freely added to foreign words, as ful in beautiful, grateful, graceful. And when we wish to form a noun out of French or Latin adjectives ending in ous, we generally employ our native ness for the purpose, as in consciousness, covetousness, etc. The foreign prefix re has been completely naturalized; and used again and again with native words, and the modern anti and pro are added to English words with little consideration of their foreign birth, and one of our suffixes, ical, is itself a hybrid, combined out of Greek and Latin elements. The established usage of the language, stated in general terms, seems to be that foreign affixes, that have no equivalent in English, are often thoroughly naturalized and used with English words; and that this, too, some-times happens when the foreign affix is simpler and more convenient than our native one, as the Latin re has replaced the old again, which we find in the old verb to again-buy and other similar words. When, also, borrowed words have become thoroughly naturalized and popular, and they are then treated as if they were natives cream, for instance, comes to us ultimately from the Greek, but it has been so long at home, and seems so like an old English word, that it would be insufferable pedantry to form an adjective like creamic from it. So the correct incertain, in-grateful, illimited, have been replaced by the hybrids uncertain, ungrateful, unlimited, and schemer has taken the place of the older and more correct schemist. On the other hand, where words are obviously foreign in character, we can note a tendency, which has been at work for the last two or three centuries, to prefer what is called "linguistic harmony"; to choose, among two competing forms, the one which is homogeneous throughout. Thus, in Wyclif's words unsatiable, unglorious, undiscreet, the native un has been replaced by the Latin in; unpossible is used in the Bible of 1611, but has been changed to impassible in later editions; while old hybrids like frailness, gayness, scepticalness, cruelness have given way to the more correct, and generally more modern forms, frailty, gaiety, scepticism, cruelty. This change has been rightly claimed as an instance of the unconscious exercise of a linguistic instinct by the English people; it has not been brought about by the efforts of learned men, but by the choice of the people at large, and is one of the manifestations of the Genius of the Language, which, in its capricious way, dislikes at times the incongruity in words composed of diverse elements. This tendency, with the modern and more diffused study of language, has grown stronger in the XIXth Century, and with the exception of thoroughly naturalized affixes like al, ize, ism, ist, etc., new hybrids, unless very convenient and expressive, find it hard to with-stand the hostile and often furious abuse and opposition which awaits them. Since, how-ever, such words abound in languages like late Latin and French, on which so much of English is modelled, and since many of our most beautiful old words are hybrids, and there was, indeed, no objection to them in the greatest periods of English, and our great poets and writers like Shakespeare and Milton have freely coined them, it is possible that a wider knowledge of the history of the language will modify this feeling, and they will in the future be judged, not by abstract principles, but each one on its merits.

Another curious thing about these affixes, due to the inscrutable working of the Genius of the Language, is the way in which some of them live and remain productive, while others, for some mysterious reason, fall into disuse and perish. Th, for instance, which was so freely employed to form nouns, as in health, wealth, etc., is no longer employed, though growth was formed as late as the time of Shakespeare; and Horace Walpole's greenth or Ruskin's illth could never have had the least chance of acceptance. So, too, the prefix for (corresponding to the still active German ver) which we find in so many old words like forbid, forgo, forgive, forlorn, is now, in spite of its great usefulness, quite obsolete; and if we take many of our oldest suffixes such as door, ship, some, etc., we shall find, as we approach more modern times, that they are more and more falling into disuse. Old words can be, and often are revived, but when an affix perishes it seems as if no effort can restore to it its old life. Which, then, of these instruments of verbal machinery are still living? A collection of the most important XIXth Century coinages will show that out of our great wealth of native suffixes but a few are still active, while almost all our good old prefixes have fallen out of use. Y is still, of course, used, as in such modern words as plucky, prosy; we still form adverbs with ly, as brilliantly, enjoyably, and adjectives in less or ful or ish or ing, as companionless, and tactful, and amateurish, exciting, appalling, etc. The most living of all our native suffixes is the old ness for abstract nouns; boastfulness, blandness, absent-mindedness, are all XIXth Century words, and ness has also been freely added to words of Latin origin, as astuteness, saintliness. This suffix has almost entirely taken the place of ship, as gladness for glad ship, cleanness for deanship; and ship, which has given us such beautiful words in the past as friendship, worship, fellowship, is almost dead now, chairmanship being, perhaps, the only current word formed from it in the XIXth Century. Ness has also replaced head or hood in many words, and also dom; for the XIXth Century attempts to revive dom, as in Carlyle's duncedom, dupedom, have not, with the exception of boredom, met with any permanent or popular success.

The Latin suffixes in English show much more vitality. Probably the most common of them in XIXth Century formations is the use of the suffix al for forming adjectives or nouns. Preferential, exceptional, medieval, are, with many others, XIXth Century words; phenomenal is a hybrid of Greek and Latin, and the nouns betrothal and betrayal are compounds of Latin and English. Other adjectives are freely formed with ous, as malarious, hilarious, flirtatious; with ive, as competitive, introspective; less frequently with dry, as documentary and rudimentary. Ation and ment are the commonest Latin suffixes for forming nouns, as centralization, mystification, enactment, bewilderment, and there are many new nouns ending in ability as conceivability, reliability, etc. The Latin prefix re is employed more than ever; multi, which was not common till the middle of the XVIIth Century, is much used now; counter is also living; intra has become popular, pre and non are much used, and quite recently pro as a prefix has sprung into sudden popularity, as in pro-Boer, pro-Russian, etc. There is no precedent or analogy in Latin for this use of pro, meaning "in favour of"; it seems to have arisen from the phrase pro and con; we find it first in pro-slavery about 4825, but it was rare until about 1896, since when, however, it has abounded in the newspapers as a useful antithesis to the popular anti. The French age, as in breakage, cleavage, acreage; and esque, derived through French from the Teutonic ish, and used in such words as Dantesque, Romanesque, are still living. But by far the most active of our affixes are Greek in origin. The suffixes ic, ism, ist, istic and ize, and crat and cracy, are fairly modern additions to the language, and obviously suited to the XIXth Century, with its development of abstract thought, and its gigantic growth of theories, creeds, doctrines, systems. With them also, to differentiate more nicely between various shades of thought, we find, principally in the XIXth Century, a great use is also made of Greek prefixes like hyper, pseudo, archi, neo, besides a great number of prefixes used in more strictly scientific terms like dia, meta, proto, etc. Of all these ism is the most productive; it came to us through the French, who had adopted it from Latin; and as early as 1300 a few words from the French, like baptism, make their appearance in English. By the XVIth Century ism became a living element in our language; and since then it has rapidly grown in popularity, until in the XIXth Century more new words were formed from it than from any other affix, and practically all the old English suffixes once used in its place have, with the exception of new, been swallowed up and superseded by it. It is now used, not only in modern words of Greek origin, like hypnotism, and still more in Latin words like pauper-ism, conservatism, commercialism, but also for words from other sources, as feudalism, Brahminism, etc. This is also true of agent-nouns in ist (as in the XIXth Century scientist, opportunist, collectivist); of adjectives in ic (Byronic, idyllic, etc.), and of verbs in ize, as minimize, bowdlerize, and many others. The XVIIth Century gave us one or two instances of curious hybrid verbs formed with the Latin prefix de and the Greek suffix ize, as decanonize, decardinalize; but since the period of the French Revolution gave birth to the verb demoralize, words of this formation have become extremely popular in French and English, and our modern vocabulary abounds in verbs like dechristianize, decentralize, deodorize, demagnetize, etc.

This short account of the decay of our English methods of word-formation, and the invasion of foreign affixes, which seem, like the foreign weeds in English rivers, to be checking our native growths, can hardly be very cheerful reading for a lover of the old English language; and he cannot but regret the disappearance of many of those vivid syllables to which we owe in the past so many of our most expressive words. But as elsewhere in modern language, where reason and imagination are at war, imagination must give way to the claims of the intellect. Modern language is for purposes of use, not beauty, and these abstract terms in ism, ist, and ize, dull and dreary and impossible for his purposes as the poet finds them, are yet indispensable for the hard thinking of science, and of social and political theory.

There are other ways of forming new words, not by addition, but by taking away one or more of the syllables or letters of which they are composed. One of these processes is by what is called "back-formations." Some-times a word has a false appearance of ending with a well-known suffix, and, to those ignorant of its character, seems to imply the existence of an original word from which it has been formed. Thus the old adverb darkling seems like an adjective formed on a supposed verb to darkle, and from this supposition such a, verb arose. Husht, which was originally an exclamation like whist! seemed to imply, and therefore gave rise to, a verb to hush; and the old singulars pease, cherise, skates, being regarded as plurals, have begotten new singulars in pea, cherry, and skate.

We are all familiar with the process called "shortening," by which words much used in conversation and hurried speech are clipped of one or more of their syllables; though we are probably not all of us aware of how much the English vocabulary has been enriched in this way. But to the process which has given us in recent times such words as cab, photo, cycle, bus, we owe the older words size, from assize, sport, from disport; and the dignified consols, from consolidated annuities, has lost almost all traces of the mutilation which it has so recently undergone.

Names of places are also a fruitful source of new words, for the Genius of the Language, when it has a gap in its vocabulary to fill, is apt to seize on any material ready to its hand. Worsted is from Worstead, a village near Norwich, and canter is, of course, an abbreviation of Canterbury. Persons also have sometimes the good or bad luck to add their names to the language. Tawdry is from the Anglo-Saxon Saint Audrey, who was famous for her splendid attire; the names of an English earl and a Scotch murderer are preserved in sandwich, and the verb to burke; and the English word which in recent times has been most widely adopted into other languages is from the patronymic of an Irish landlord, Captain Boycott. From fictitious characters come quixotic, dryasdust, the verbs to hector and to pander, while pamphlet is from the name of a character in a XIIth Century. comedy.

But many of our commonest and most familiar terms cannot be explained by any of the above methods, and have, as far as is known, no etymology in the true sense of the word. This history of all living languages shows the continual appearance of new terms, which cannot be traced to any familiar root or previously existing formation. Among words of this kind which appear in the Anglo-Saxon period are dog and curse; while such common words as girl and boy, lad and lass, pig, and fog and cut appear in the XIIIth and XIVth Centuries. Bet and jump and dodge are not found before the XVIth Century, while the XVIIIth Century saw the appear ance of capsize, donkey, bore, and many others. None of these words can be traced with any certainty to words of previous formation. n the XIXth Century rollicking and the verb to loaf have appeared in England, while rowdy, bogus, boom, and blizzard are of equally obscure American formation. The same process has been going on in foreign languages, and many of our words of this class are borrowed from abroad. Risk and brave and bronze seem to be of Italian origin, while flute, frown, and gorgeous, and the XIXth Century rococo have apparently arisen on French soil.

These new words were a considerable difficulty to the older philologists, who believed that all new words were descended from ancient roots, formed in times beyond the ken of history, when our ancestors possessed the root-creating faculty-a pure productive energy, which their descendants, it was believed, had long since lost. It is one of the discoveries, however, of more recent philology that this faculty is by no many lost; that wherever language finds itself in its natural state, new words appear-words which have all the character of fresh created roots, and which soon take their place side by side with terms of long descent, and are used, like them, for the formation of derivatives and compounds. Although further research may discover the origin of some of these "obscure" words, as they are called, there can be no doubt that most of them are new creations, fresh-minted in the popular imagination.

The simplest of these new words are created by the process called by the awkward name of "onomatopoeia," which means literally name-making, but is used to describe the process by which a word is made, imitating in its sound the thing which it is intended to describe. This imitation of natural sounds by human speech can never be an absolute imitation, although some of the cries of birds and animals have almost the character of articulate speech; and in words like cuckoo and miaow we do approach something like perfect representation. This means of word-making is illustrated by the old story of the foreigner in China, who, sitting down to a covered dish, inquired "quack-quack"? and was promptly answered by "bow-wow" from his Chinese attendant. But direct imitations of this kind are rare, and for the most part the sounds of nature have to be translated into articulate sounds which do not imitate them, but which suggest them to the mind. Thus the noise of splashing water has been represented by such divers sounds as bil-bit and glut-glut; the nightingale's song by bul-bul, jug jug, and whit-whit, and the noise of a gun going off, which we now describe by bang, was originally rendered by the word bounce. This symbolism of sounds, the suggestive power of various combinations of vowels and consonants, has never been very carefully studied, but certain associations or suggestions may be briefly stated. It is obvious, for instance, that long vowels suggest a slower movement than the shorter vowels, and that vowels which we pronounce by opening the mouth convey the idea of more massive objects; while those which are formed by nearly closing the lips suggest more slight movements or more slender objects. Thus dong is deeper in sound than ding, clank than clink, and chip is a slighter action than that described by chop. More subtle are the suggestions provided by consonants; thus for some reason there are a number of words beginning with qu which express the idea of shaking or trembling, as quiver, quaver, and quagmire. The combination bl suggests impetus, and generally the use of the breath, as blow, blast, blab, blubber; fl impetus with some kind of clumsy movement, as flounder, flop, flump; from the combination gr we get words like grumble, which express something of the same meaning as groan, grunt, grunch, grudge, and the mod-ern word of military origin to grouse. From scr we get a number of words expressing the sense of loud outcry, as scream, screech, screek, scrike. A "stop" consonant like k or p at the end of words suggests a sound or movement abruptly stopped, as clip, whip, snip, clap, rap, slap, snap, flap; while sh in the same place describes a noise or action that does not end abruptly, but is broken down into a mingled mass of smashing or rustling sounds, as in dash, splash, smash, etc. The comparison of smack and smash, clap and clash will show this difference. Words ending in mp, like bump, dump, slump, thump, convey the sense of a duller and heavier sound, stopped in silence but more slowly. This suggestive power is due partly to direct imitation of natural sounds, but more to the movements of the vocal organs, and their analogy with the movements we wish to describe; an explosive sound describes an explosive movement, as in blast or blow, while a sound suddenly stopped suggests a stopped movement, and a prolonged sound a move-ment that is prolonged also. But probably these analogies are mainly formed by association; a common word established in the language describes a sound or action, and its sound comes to be connected with the thing that it describes. Other words are formed on its model, and finally the expressive power of the sound, suggesting as it does so many other words of similar meaning, becomes a part of the unconscious inheritance of those who use the same form of speech.

Among the older onomatopoeias in English may be mentioned, in addition to those al-ready quoted, hoot and chatter; the XVIIIth Century gave us fuss and flimsy; and porn porn, a word which arose in the South African War, is one of the latest additions to the list. It is very rare, indeed, that a word is deliberately and consciously made out of sounds arbitrarily chosen, but this has sometimes been successfully accomplished, as in Spenser's word blatant and in gas, which was formed by a Dutch chemist in the XVIIth Century. Laudanum was perhaps an arbitrary term made by Paracelsus, and ogre is found without known antecedents, in the writings of one of the earliest of French fairy-tale writers. Manufacturers and inventors have sometimes, as we all know too well, adopted this method of naming their wares; and to them we owe at least one useful word formed by this process

the word kodak, which has been borrowed from English into several foreign languages.

A still more curious class of new words are those in which two or more terms are combined, or, as it were, telescoped into one; this is an old process in language, and verbs like to don (do on) or to doff (do off) are examples of it in its simplest form. Other words supposed to have been formed by this process are flurry, from flaw and hurry; lunch, from lump and hunch; while flaunt is perhaps combined out of fly, flout, and vaunt. Lewis

Carroll amused himself by creating words of this kind, and has thus added at least two words to the English language chortle, probably formed by suggestions of chuckle and snort, and galumph, out of gallop and triumph-ant. In a large number of our new words, however, it is difficult to define the definite associations or analyze the elements that give them their expressive meaning. They seem to be creations of the most vital faculty in language, the sense of its inherent and natural fitness of the name with the thing. The old words bluff, queer, and lounge are examples of this process, which, in the XVIIIth Century, gave us cantankerous and humbug, and several other similar words. Sometimes a word possesses a vague, undefined expressiveness, which seems capable of embodying various meanings, and words of this kind have been employed for different purposes before their final use is settled. Thus conundrum, which probably originated in Oxford or Cambridge as a piece of jocular dog-Latin, was first the appellation of an odd person, then used by Ben Jonson for a whim, then for a pun, and finally settled down to its present meaning at the end of the XVIIIth Century. The old word roly-poly has acquired in the course of its history the following meanings: a rascal, a game, a dance, a pudding, and finally, a plump infant. The expressive word blizzard seems to have floated about the United States in the vague sense of a "poser" until the great winter storm of 1880 claimed it as its own.

When Dr. Johnson, in his Dictionary, came to recent words of racy character and popular origin, like coax and fun, he labelled them "low words," and we have inherited from him a somewhat fastidious and scornful feeling about them. And yet a little study of the history of literature will show us that the most admired writers of the past took a very different attitude towards popular creations of this kind, and that words like rowdy, bogus, boom, and rollicking, at which we boggle, would have had no terrors for the greatest of our old poets. Spenser and Shakespeare, for instance, adopted at once the then recent and probably Irish expression hubbub. The onomatopoeic bump and the dialect dwindle make their first appearance in Shakespeare's plays; and he often uses the word hurry, which, save for one doubtful instance, was not known before his time. Other words of a similar character-bang and bluster, flare and freak, huddle and bustle—were all adparently of XVIth Century origin, and all appear in the writings of Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton. The first known instance of gibber is in Horatio's lines ----

"The sheeted dead Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets,"

and Hamlet, when he thought of killing his uncle, was not too fastidious to say ---

"Now I might do it pat, now he is praying.

The true function of the poet is not to oppose the forces that make for life and vividness in language, but to sift the new expressions as they arise, and ennoble, in Shakespeare's fashion, those that are worthy of it, by his usage.

Home | More Articles | Email: