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A Civil but Untrammeled Tongue: Spontaneous Creativity in Language1 Victoria Neufeldt When new dictionaries are published, much is always made of the new words, those that are thought of as having just been accorded recognition as real words and thereby taking their official place in the vocabulary of the language. We are all, academic and layman, jaded linguist and "naive" speaker alike, fasdnated to hear about these new vehicles of linguistic expression. New words like cash cow, couch potato, and Mcjob seem like wonders of the language when they appear and are usually greeted with delighted (or shocked) surprise. The neologisms that especially capture our attention are indeed often remarkable; some with their metaphorical baggage can constitute miniature sociological studies in themselves—like Mcjob, for instance, which for comprehension depends on all the associations and connotations of the name McDonald's, as well as an awareness of the difficulties of the current employment situation, in particular for new graduates wanting to enter the workforce. And yet, linguistic innovation as a whole is not extraordinary at all. Neologisms such as those mentioned above constitute only a small portion of lexical creativity. The subject of this paper is the unspectacular kind of innovation, based on the combination of existing 1 This article uses the data and some of the commentary from a paper read to the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in Chicago in December 1990, but most of the analysis and arguments it presents are new. The words used as examples are primarily from publications dated between about 1985 and 1989, found in the citation files of Webster's New World Dictionaries, together with a few more recent ones from the files of Merriam-Webster Inc. and some that I have collected myself from old and recent publications. 20Victoria Neufeldt morphemes, that produces the bulk of our neologisms. Such neology, far from being a separable linguistic phenomenon that manifests itself periodically or sporadically in response to social stimuli, in fact rises out of ordinary linguistic competence, what might be called the linguistic collective unconscious of the speech community. This is normal morphological activity, which breaks no grammatical rules. The speaker or writer who creates a new word (e.g., affordability, stereoed , hypester, marginalize, trendoid, asizzle) is merely dipping into the fund of morphemes that exist in the language and is using his underlying knowledge of English word structure to assemble a new, perhaps never-before-uttered lexical construct that is nevertheless instantly comprehensible to any listener or reader who is familiar with its components. Not only is this a natural process; it is also often an unconscious one, and the resulting word falls into the lexical pool with scarcely a ripple unless or until for some reason attention is drawn to it. The new verb texturize, for example, is an unexceptional creation, accomplished by adding the existing suffix -ize to the existing noun texture, as many thousands of verbs have been created in the past. Being an integral aspect of language, neology of any kind is also not a new phenomenon. There is a fairly common perception— fostered by various public figures, including the "language gurus"— that linguistic neology is symptomatic of an absence of standards of behavior in all areas of life ("anything goes"), as opposed to the old days when standards of language, as of morality, were maintained and one knew what to expect. But the process has, of course, gone on since the beginning of language. There may be periods of especially notable activity, when the language is bursting with neology, such as the Elizabethan period or the present one; but a basic level of creativity continues without cease. It is interesting that this "everyday" neology, which normally passes virtually unnoticed in the speech community, draws more flak from professional and amateur language critics when it seizes their attention than the usually deliberate and often spectacular coinages, such as cash cow and other current expressions of business (white knight, poison pill, etc.), or any of the myriad new terms and new meanings that characterize the vocabulary of computer science (menu, spreadsheet , virus, etc.). It is phenomena like the essentially prosaic derivation of a verb from an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 19-31
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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