The “Chaos Theory of Word Creation”: why successful neologisms are just as likely to be created by chance as by design

by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

“The hidden history of coined words”, by best selling US author Ralph Keyes, is a delightful compendium of stories about how new terms have been created over the past centuries, most of which, says Keyes, “whimsically, to taunt, even to prank” or as a result of “happy accidents”. Silliness, sarcasm, slips of the tongue, wisecracks, throwaway lines, and invective, have all been “capital sources of new words”, says Keyes, and are just as likely to “refresh our language” as carefully crafted amalgams of clauses from Latin and Greek. To put it in other words, Keyes says, chance plays a bigger role than design in the process of word coinage: think of it as a sort of “Chaos Theory of Word Creation”. This is especially true of English, which has no formal process for assessing neologisms. Unlike languages that are supervised by language academies, says Keyes, English is “open-source”. Anyone is free to propose new words or phrases and the only criterion for their success is that users adopt them. Not that success is easy, however, Keyes points out. When it comes to neologisms supply far outstrips demand. “Many audition, few are cast. Only a smatter win the linguistic Oscar of continued use”. Neologizers come from diverse quarters and include not only learned scholars but cartoonists, columnists, children’s authors and also children. Neologize was one of Thomas Jefferson’s many invented words, one for which he was much reprimanded by language guardians of his times, says Keyes. Indeed the history of word coinage is filled with fierce battles between word coiners and purists as well as competing claims for coining a particular word. Keyes says no existing book has brought together the accounts of how words are coined up to now and that his book aims to fill that void. Keyes’s work, published earlier in the year by the Oxford University Press, has had excellent reviews and makes for a most enjoyable, and illuminating, read. What follows is a brief summary of the challenges Keyes faced and the methodology he adopted for his research, and a few examples of his explorations into the “etymological underworld” of terms, drawn from the book.

Research methodology and challenges

Because coinage of new words is so unpredictable, says Keyes, researching this topic can’t rely on the usual methods and sources. The task called for “sailing uncharted waters”, and some of the most intriguing information came not from works of etymology and lexicography but ones of history, biographies, press accounts, blog posts, and personal contacts with those involved. In many cases neologisms were used and were circulating on the streets long before being committed to print by someone who got (and often took) credit for coining them. Notable examples Keyes came across include yuppie, affluenza and fashionista. This illustrates the challenge, he says, of trying to ascertain a new word’s actual parent, as there is no such thing as an “etymological DNA test”. Making it to a printed page provides those who study word origins evidence of “earliest use”. Even if it is not always possible to trace the moment when the “primordial wordsmith” first dubbed a concept he says, exploring its provenance leads from one fascinating backstory to the other, much like a genealogical quest may not lead to one’s earliest ancestors but does turn up intriguing tales of those encountered along the way.

Pros and cons of using internet in research

Technology was a mixed blessing is his research, says Keyes. On the one hand it gives us powerful tools for searching for word origins and are particularly useful for words that originated online, as it provides a “pixel trail” with which to trace them. On the other, however, the internet is also rife with misinformation about word origins, as indeed for any other topic. Search engines are helpful but not reliable, to put it mildly, he adds. Google’s “Ngram” is impressive but can yield disconcerting results. Booty call did indeed show up in an ancient hymn in Sanskrit, but in this form: “Men in the strife for booty call on Indra”. A bad hair day was not in use in the early 20th century, as Ngram claims: the actual phrase was had their day, in a poem by Edwin Markham in 1905. The autocorrect feature is another “mortal enemy of neologisms”, Keyes says. Cuttage, an early 20th century neologism, is routinely autocorrected to cottage by Microsoft word, and a search for hangry leads Google to ask whether one didn’t mean Hungary instead. The internet itself has become a source of neologisms, notes Kayes. An entirely new type of coinage includes Twitter hashtags such as #Metoo, #Blacklivesmatter and #MAGA (Make America Great Again), where MAGA has become a word unto itself.


If ever a subject cries out for neologisms it is digital technology, says Keyes. As technology progresses we need terms to talk about it. Bluetooth was a jokey placeholder name for a wireless system being developed in 1997, and referred to a 10th century Scandinavian king with a tooth so decayed that it looked blue. Software was coined by pioneer programmer Paul Niquette in the early 50’s more or less as a prank and as an antonym to hardware. The word evoked shrugs and smirks among colleagues at the time and Niquette never even recorded it. Princeton statistician John Tukey (who coined the word bit, as a contraction of binary digit) was the first to use the word software in a paper and is generally assumed to have created it. Blog originated in 1997 when one netizen called John Barger began calling his online jottings a web log. Others compressed the two words into weblog and later on it was shortened to blog by another internet user called Peter Merholz. People composing blogs soon came to be known as bloggers, and other words spawned from blog include blogosphere. Although a freshly minted term is the purest form of coinage, Keyes says, sometimes words can also be “reborn”, or recoined. Cookie is a classic recoin, converting a foodstuff into a technoterm.

Naming the future

 This is the title of one of the chapters of Keyes’ work, related to how science-fiction has been an interesting source of new words, many of which have gone mainstream. The word robot was first used to denote a fictional humanoid in a 1920 Czech-language play “R.U.R.” (“Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti”, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”) by Karel Čapek. Robota in Czech means forced labor. The term robotics first appeared in two plays by Isaac Asimov during the early 1940’s. Asimov assumed that this was what the emerging field of robot development was called, as in mechanics, hydraulics, etc. without realizing it did not yet exist and he was the one to invent it. Many other new words we now consider everyday vocabulary come from scif-fi, as we wrote in an article for our blog on this topic. These include spacesuit, blast off, deep space, zero gravity and alien. The term space colony was invented in 1932, in a piece by sci-fi author P. S. Miller, in “Wonder Stories”. Many sci-fi neologisms have been picked up by scientists. The hypothetical quantum unit of gravity, the graviton, for example, entered scientific jargon in 1934, but was first seen in one of Harl Vincent’s short stories, “Barton’s Island”, for the science fiction magazine “Amazing Stories,” in 1929.

Societal trends and politics

 In a chapter titled “ivy-covered words” Keyes lists a number of words that have been coined by members of the academy. These include midlife crisis (Elliott Jacques), generation gap (James Coleman), alpha male (Rudolph Schenkel), male bonding (Lionel Tiger) personal space (Robert Sommer) and broken windows. “Broken windows” is the title of a 1982 article by political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George L. Kelling where the authors argued that even petty disorder could lead to serious lawbreaking. The article provided a vivid image for a broader perception of social breakdown, writes Keyes, and caused a sensation. So much so that their theory was adopted by big city mayors such as New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Intersectionality was an obscure mathematical term before legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s wrote an article in 1989 article on how aspects of a person’s identity (race, sex and gender) combine to create different modes of discrimination or privilege. Intersectional feminism is one of the new terms it has generated. Self-fulfilling prophecy is a 1948 contribution to language by sociologist Robert Merton, a prolific neologizer who was also credited with being the first to use dysfunction and dysfunctional in the socio-psychological sense.

Fun new words and expressions

 Mojo was adapted from words related to shamanism brought to the USA by enslaved Africans. It later became common in jazz and blues, such as the 1926 song “My Daddy’s Got the Mojo, but I Got the Say So” sung by the Butterbeans and Susie. Jim Morrison and the Beatles referred to mojo in songs of their own well before Mike Meyers made it popular with his Austin Powers character, who struggles to get his mojo back. TV personality Jane Pauley believes she first conjured up the term bad hair day during an exchange with her co-host on the Today Show in the early 80s. Keyes has traced this expression much further back, precisely to an English trichologist named Philip Kingsley who referred to bad hair days in a conversation with a journalist in 1957. Another coinage whose origin is a matter of debate is fashionista. It is generally credited to have been coined by US author, Stephen Fried in the biography of a model in 1993, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an earlier citation: UK author Richard Conway-Jones’ book “Violet Pea, a fashionista: a girl with her own take on fashion” (1992). Interviewed by a US linguist wishing to verify the claim, Conway-Jones said that the term had been circulating in the London fashion scene, as is often the case with new words, long before he put it on print.


 There is of course much more to Keyes’ book than the few examples we have given here. There are very interesting sections about new words that come from literature (scroogish, quixotic, doublespeak) or book titles (psychobabble, self-help, gulag), words that never made it into the mainstream (whifflement, objects of little importance; roofer, letter of thanks after staying under someone’s roof; sothers, brothers and sisters), words that that were invented from scratch to describe new materials (rayon, nylon, cellophane), new brands (Dacron, Teflon, Kevlar) and new products (zipper, widgets). There is also a chapter on the most prolific neologizers: these include John Milton, who contributed over 600 words to the English language, Charles Dickens who, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, invented over 200 words, Rudyard Kipling 140 and Washington Irving 45. New words were sometimes the fruit of in-house company naming contests. This is the case for DuPont in 1939 for the term nylon, Bell Telephone Laboratories for transistor in 1948, and the George A. Hormel company, which needed a better name then “spiced ham” for a product it had launched in 1936. Several names were tossed out and the winner was “Spam”. With the help of this new name the product became enormously popular. Over the next few decades spam was used in many different ways and contexts (including in a 1970 Monty Python show) and today spam has come to signify masses of (mostly commercial) emails that clutter our inboxes. Another interesting contest is the one organised by the authors of the book “Generations”, Neil Howe and William Strauss, who first used the term millenial generation, and later turned to the internet to help name the generation born immediately after. The overwhelming choice was homeland generation but the name faded out quickly as Generation Z increasingly caught on. To quote well known neologizer Robert Merton, “to survive a word must claim its place and convince an audience”. Indeed.

About Ralph Keyes

Ralph Keyes is an author, speaker and teacher; his books include the best selling Is There Life After High School?, The Courage to Write, and The Post-Truth Era. His more recent books have focused on language. Keyes’s recent books have focused on language. “Nice Guys Finish Seventh” and “The Quote Verifier” explore the origins of quotations, with an emphasis on correcting misconceptions about who said what. “I Love It When You Talk Retro” is about “retroterms,” words and phrases that are rooted in our past. “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms “ considers how and why we use so many evasive words. Read more at this link


“The hidden history of coined words”, Ralph Keyes, Oxford University Press 2021, ISBN-13: 978-0190466763 – ISBN-10: 0190466766

“The chaos theory of word creation”, Ralf Keyes, The Irish Times, May 28, 2021

See also our other articles about neologisms:

New words and phrases generated via a collective experience can either unite or sow divisions: the case of “Familects”

The “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”, a project to give names to our most profound emotions

German is an interesting case of how grammar can facilitate the creation of new words and influence the evolution of a language

Sci-fi is a fertile breeding ground for neologisms: some have entered everyday language and even scientific jargon

The new forms of living, working and socializing during the current pandemic have engendered a crop of neologisms

2020: A year of seismic shifts in terms of language usage and rise of new words

Elephant in the zoom, Le Creuset wrist, and cough-shaming: how Covid lingo is creeping into our every day language

How do you say cell phone in Lakota?

How Brexit has changed the English language

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