Dale, There are those who say that a ‘neologism’ is any new word that any clown makes up. I don’t go along with that and am of the school that considers a ‘neologism’ to be a newly (depending on where you set ‘new’ to start) coined word or phrase, or novel expression in increasing usage or an old word (also in increasing use) which has taken on a new and current meaning. I distinguish a ‘nonce word’ ( (coined by James Murray of OED fame in ~ 1880) from a neologism, in that it is a word coined (or devised) and used on one particular occasion (e.g. in one publication, speech, . . .) and which never makes it into general use – so just because someone coins a word, in this way of thinking, doesn’t make it a neologism. A word has to receive some popularity of usage before it is put in that category. Coleridge, for example, coined ‘mammonolatry’ in 1820, but it gained no general acceptance and thus is now considered a ‘nonce word.’ Of course, some time would have to pass before one would know if a word was ‘nonce’ or not.
A second point is that if an old word such as ‘ave’ finds new popularity in the present, but still retains the same meaning, I would not consider it a neologism. So on two fronts I would say ‘ave’ is not a neologism. From what I gather it is a greeting and has the same meaning it originally had 8 centuries or so ago, and second, it has not shown up in slang or new word dictionaries printed in that last few years and it may, in fact, turn out to go nowhere.
‘Attritionist’ and ‘guzzler’ both look like they are neologisms since ‘attritionist’ has found its way into military jargon and this new meaning of ‘guzzler’ has found its way into environmental lingo (according to respectable-looking sources on the web, although neither shows up in any dictionaries I’ve checked) and probably neither is about to go away.
As to how you can find out how long a term has been in widespread use, that’s not always easy. The ‘Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary’ provides the date that a work first appeared in print and is well worth the $20 price for the CD-ROM. It, for example lists ‘gas-guzzler’ as first appearing 1975-1980. It has the salutation ‘ave’ as appearing 1200-50, and attritionist does not appear. The ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ provides the earliest appearance in print (that they could find) of every word. The hard copy may be found in the library or you could purchase the CD-ROM, which is hardly worth it, since if you get the online subscription ($295/year) you get the latest updates plus quality searchability for nearly the same price. You can, of course, also always use the hard copy in the library, but you are dealing with circa 1989 as far as neologisms go. The other place to look, if you are interested in this sort of thing, is in new word dictionaries (e.g. ‘20th Century Words’ (1999) by Ayto, ‘Oxford Dictionary of New Words (1997), . . . Collections of words that may or may not turn out to be neologisms and which have shown up with some frequency can be found in ‘Word Watch’ (1995) by Soukhanov, and on Paul McFedrie’s website ‘Wordspy.com’ and in his new book of the same name (2004). An older book, which is very interesting is ‘Fifty Years Among the New Words, 1941-1991’ by John Algeo. Linguist Alan Metcalf has written a neat little book on the creation and survival of new words entitled ‘Predicting New Words.’ Also, you can often get a feel (as in the case of ‘attritionist’) for what is going on with a new word, by doing a Google search.
Ken – September 4, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)