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Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success [Hardcover]

Allan Metcalf
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 21, 2002 0618130063 978-0618130061
Have you ever wanted to gain linguistic immortality by making up a word? Many people have coined new words — famous people like Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Dr. Seuss, along with many lesser-knowns. But many more have put forward new words that failed. Why are some new words adopted while others are ignored? Allan Metcalf explores this question in his fascinating survey of new-word creation in English.
By examining past new-word contenders, Metcalf discerns lessons for linguistic longevity. For instance, he shows us why the humorist Gelett Burgess gave us the words blurb and bromide but failed to win anyone over with bleesh and diabob. Metcalf examines words invented for political and social reasons (African American, pro-life), words coined in books (edge city, the Peter principle), brand names and the words derived from them (aspirin, Ping-Pong), and words that started as jokes (big bang, couch potato). On the basis of this research, he develops a scale — the FUDGE scale — for predicting the success of newly coined words. The FUDGE scale has five factors: Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users and situations, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept. By judging how an emerging new word rates for each FUDGE factor, Metcalf is able to predict which words will take root in the English lexicon and which words will dry up and blow away. In this highly original work, Metcalf shows us how to spin syllabic straw into linguistic gold.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1990, Metcalf (How We Talk: American Regional English Today), executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, had the idea that the ADS should choose an annual New Word of the Year. That year, the winner was the shortlived bushlips ("insincere political rhetoric"). Some of the ADS's other choices fell into obscurity just as quickly, prompting Metcalf to write this entertaining investigation of which new words have staying power, and why. He discusses winners (1941's teenager) and losers (1995's schmoozeoisie, "a class of people who earn their living by talk"); reveals the forgotten jokes behind familiar terms like couch potato and gerrymander; and shows that the success of a word has little to do with whether or not it fills a gap in the English language. Metcalf also describes his system for predicting the success of au courant words (he gives weapons-grade high marks for endurance, while consigning quarterlife crisis to the ash heap). Edifying and humorous, this little book is irresistible fun.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The author's How We Talk: American Regional English Today (2000) was written mainly for writers and people whose interest in the language is of a rather scholarly nature. This new book, on the other hand, has something for everyone. In lively, entertaining prose, it traces the origins of a dazzling array of words and phrases: Marlboro Man, Frankenfood, blurb, skycap, quark, scofflaw (there was a contest to coin this useful word). It also introduces us to a fascinating array of would-be words, coinages that never quite caught on (linner, for example, was intended to designate the meal between lunch and dinner). The author, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, offers tips on creating a new word: make it something whose meaning is self-evident, introduce it subtly, and keep using it. The book is jam-packed with treats for word lovers, and it blows the lid off some common myths. Shakespeare, for example, might not have invented a lot of the words he's credited with. A must-read for word buffs. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 21, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618130063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618130061
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 5 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,133,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Allan Metcalf is OK. In fact, he's never been more OK than now, with the publication of his "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word" by Oxford University Press. Doesn't sound right to say a person or book is merely OK? Right! and you can read all about it in the book, which was featured in a full-page review by Roy Blount Jr. in the November 21, 2010 New York Times Book Review. OK is unquestionably America's greatest word, indeed arguably (and the book argues it) America's greatest invention and most successful export. And yet it's so humble, we hardly notice it as we pepper (or salt) our communications with OK. We're going to celebrate March 23, 2011 as OK Day - the anniversary of the birth of OK in a Boston newspaper in 1839.

He's written five previous books about language, and a book about expository writing (Writing to the Point, 6th edition) that is the best such book ever - at least he thinks so, because it embodies a lucid method that is the only writing instruction that has ever improved his own writing. (It's a method invented by William J. Kerrigan years ago.)

He's a professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois, and long ago earned a B.A. from Cornell University and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He's also executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, a national scholarly association for the study of American English, past and present.

Customer Reviews

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Word Up! January 2, 2003
By Bill Marsano

Take heed: This enjoyable and informative book is those who love words and ingenuity; all others stay clear. Author Allan Metcalf, professor of English and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society proposed in 1990 that--just as Time magazine had its Man of the Year--the ADS should
elect a New Word of the Year. Done and done! This book looks at the winners (and many others) and what became of them; it encourages readers to create new words of their
own devising and suggests criteria for success.
And success has been mixed, not only for ADS honorees but for other new words (officially called 'neologisms'). For example, my own creations. I produced "oldveau riche" a dozen years ago, but seldom have opportunity to use it. Currently I'm struggling to popularize "e-dress," which is certainly more efficient than "e-mail address." The first ADS winner,
"bushlips" (for insincere political rhetoric), stemmed promisingly from President George W. Bush's "Read my lips: No new taxes," but, like Bush's promise, it went nowhere. "Frankenfood," a recent American coinage for
genetically modified food, is popular only in Britain. "Scofflaw," Metcalf says, was selected in 1923 from 25,000 contest entries. It's used for people who ignore parking tickets but was created specifically for illegal
drinkers during Prohibition, and it was thought to carry such a sting that it would shame them into reform. Fat chance!
Metcalf discusses other semi-successes. Gelett Burgess invented the very useful 'blurb' and 'bromide,' but their <meanings> were supplied by others. Lewis Carroll invented lots of neologisms that remain pleasing (e.g., "'twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe . . . .") but are so obscure no one uses them.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Words and Their FUDGE Factors December 24, 2002
If you feel yourself just one person in a sea of humanity who will be unremembered by future generations (and most of us are indeed going to be forgotten), and you'd like to claim just a little bit of immortality, you might coin a word that gets used by lots of people and then enters the dictionaries. That's what Paul Lewis did. He's a humorist and English professor, and his new word is one of the many reported in _Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success_ (Houghton Mifflin), an amusing new way to look at new words by Allan Metcalf. Every dictionary which lists Lewis's coinage "frankenfood" and goes to any detail on its etymology will have to list him as the inventor (author?) of the word. "Frankenfood," meaning genetically modified comestibles, is a clever, funny new word. It gets its point across clearly, and will probably be around as long as genetically modified food itself is. Score a big one for professor Lewis, but beware: he has subsequently tried coining other new words, some of them seemingly clever and useful, but none of them have caught on. Metcalf's book tries to show why some new words catch on and why some don't, and how to make predictions. Maybe his prediction system is quite good; we will have to wait a couple of generations to see what words stick or fall away as it predicts, but even so, this is a fascinating look at how words come into being.
It is surprising that so many new words are created every day. You might even make a few yourself, like President Bush does; he comes up with words like "misunderestimate" rather frequently, but it isn't surprising that a lot of other people have come up with that one, all on their own, too. Often people perceive a need for a word and want to invent one to fill that need. This seldom works to make a lasting word.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They have a word for it... December 21, 2002
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Why do some coined words catch on and others not? Why do some catch on quickly and others burn out equally quickly? As someone who works with word puzzles, I was intrigued by these questions: we like to keep puzzle vocabulary up-to-date, but at the same time make sure that our entries are generally known so as not to frustrate the solver, not always an easy task.
Metcalf presents a well-written, jargon-free analysis of his theories on this, including a historical perspective. I found it fascinating, and my copy has already started circulating amongst my coworkers.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun and informative November 11, 2002
By A Customer
I picked up this book after reading about it in the Atlantic Monthly's "Word Fugitives" column, I'd used Metcalf's last book, HOW WE TALK, in a school project a few years ago and I really like his writing style -- fun, funny, and wildly informative without a hint of dryness. He makes words fun! PREDICTING NEW WORDS did not disappoint -- it's full of interesting stories about the origins of popular words (who knew that "scofflaw" had such a quirky history?) and tells you how to predict on your own what words and phrases will last. A great read.
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