Talking about words: Future Words
When we think about where new words come from, we usually imagine encountering a new thing, needing a name for it, and then finding one—woodchuck, for instance, or sudoku.
But sometimes people think up words and look around to see what they might mean.
A philosopher influential in the formation of the British Royal Society in the 1660s thought it would be a good idea to create a whole lot of scientific words to help people make discoveries. This is not so eccentric a program as you might think. When a Scottish physicist thought up an elementary particle thirty years ago, it acquired the name Higgs Boson and since then several billion dollars have been spent, without success so far, in searching for one.
The name's ready to go.
Most people use the term science fiction to talk about a particular kind of creative writing, but Philip K. Dick—one of its influential practitioners—called what he did speculative fiction. There's a useful distinction there, I think, since the genre is not so much about science as about the imagination. (An award-winning website at the University of Michigan is full of wonderful information about Fantasy and Science Fiction.) Writers in this genre put a lot of energy into thinking up new words.
They have names ready to go when the real world needs them.
Speculative words leak out from imagination into reality. Robot, for example, comes into English from a play about an imaginary (and grim) future, and it soon took root in our language so we now have robotics and lots of other words created out of robot. You don't have to imagine a robot; you can buy one to vacuum your carpet.
Speculative fiction provides all sorts of words that "come true" in the real world: astronaut (1880), spaceship (1894), space suit (1929), blast off (1951), android (1951), cryonics (1952). NEWSPEAK a language impoverished by political correctness, comes straight into English from George Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Speculative fiction gives velocity to already existing words, and readers may imagine, incorrectly, that the authors with whom we associate them are their coiners.
Searching the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that its editors think speculators are important to English: Isaac Asimov for positron, Anthony Burgess for droog 'gang member', Robert Heinlein for grock 'to understand intuitively', Aldous Huxley for soma 'narcotic drug', H. G. Wells for aeronaut.
So where can we expect to find our future words? Some of them will come out of the thin air of imaginative fiction. But most will come from the existing word stock adapted in various ways. Consider these recent new words: Poddict (a blend of iPod and addict); spim (spam that sneaks in through instant messaging).
These are imaginative words somebody took the trouble to create. But most future words are far more hum-drum. New words take old ones and give them new content: rendition, weapons of mass destruction, face-blindness 'inability to recognize people by their faces', vacation deprivation. Our electronic world gives new meanings to all sorts of familiar words: click, link, refresh, surf.
But don't count out speculative fiction writers busy to find new words for imaginative worlds. Here's a site for searching out future words and adding to our knowledge of old ones.
If you can find a use of antigravity before 1932, earthbound before 1942, humanoid before 1940, phaser before 1966, to teleport before 1932, or zero-gravity before 1938, they'll want to hear from you.
Richard W. Bailey is the Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor of English. His most recent book is Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff, University of Michigan Press, 2003—a biography of an American thief, impostor, murderer and would-be philologist who lived from 1821 to 1871. It was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003.