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What is a Neologism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A neologism can be a brand new word gaining usage in a language, or a new meaning for a word already in existence. Such a term isn't typically in common use, but may become so if it is used often. Neologisms can come from a variety of places and might be gleaned from scientific or technical language, come from other languages, be derived by putting two words together, or they may be solely invented, as in the case of words like "Jabberwocky" from the famous Lewis Carroll poem. Linguistic specialists suggest new words often migrate into a language most with great cultural changes or with the integration of two cultures that speak two different languages. Arguably, things like social media may also have great influence on what new words become part of a language.

Linguists often classify the neologism by its degree of use in a language. The newborn word is at first unstable, and it’s hard to guess whether it will take hold and eventually be a word that most people know and use. A diffused neologism means that many people are using the word, but it doesn’t yet have formal recognition as a word, and ultimately, if the word remains popular it may attain stable status. It has become part of the language and is likely to be defined in dictionaries.

There are some who welcome the neologism as a natural process of language because new words become part of language constantly. Others view neologisms as corruptions of the principal language and they may argue against their inclusion, especially in any type of formal writing venue. This second group usually loses the argument because language is not static; it expands or shrinks at all times, and word use in the general populace or even in academia doesn’t remain the same.

On the other hand, students should be warned that use of a diffused or unstable neologism in academic writing is not likely to be met with favor. If a writing assignment requires formal language, it’s usually not appropriate to use a newly coined word. Ironically, many neologisms come from academia, either from the highly technical language of science or from literature.

There is another definition of neologism that is used in psychiatric medicine. Words that are made up by those with severe mental illness or autism, and are used and repeated by the people who make them up, may also be called neologisms. In this case, the words have personal meaning only and don’t spread to the general language. This behavior is, by no means, only characteristic of the mentally ill. When children learn language, they frequently make up words too. Twins may develop a unique vocabulary that can only be understand by each other, but in most cases this language will not spread elsewhere.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Fa5t3r — On Dec 27, 2013

@umbra21 - People do need to police themselves though, when using words like these. They aren't all just funny neologisms. Some of them are derogatory, or appropriated from other cultures.

I'm all for the natural evolution of language, but I think it's disgusting when people basically steal the best parts of an oppressed culture and don't acknowledge the source.

By umbra21 — On Dec 26, 2013

@pleonasm - The interesting thing, to me, is that there seem to be a lot of neologism words and phrases developing online that really don't work when you use them in real life. Every time I hear someone say "OMG" I think, wow, that just sounds weird. But it makes perfect sense when someone writes it online.

Ultimately, I think it's a good thing and that people shouldn't have to police themselves too much, though. It might seem like a corruption or like a narrowing of language, but most of the time, to me, it looks more like an extension. Generally it happens when people make up something for an emotion that they have, for which there is no word.

Anything that makes the language richer is a good thing, in my opinion.

By pleonasm — On Dec 26, 2013

I can understand why people don't like neologisms. It can seem like a corruption of language and it can also be quite exclusionary when someone uses a lot of them. It seems that this division is quite common between older and younger generations, as the youth develop neologisms of their own with their own shared context and the older people just don't get it.

Even a list of neologisms might be confusing because they may not understand the broader meaning of something. People forget that their own slang words don't really make sense either, when they demand that someone else's do.

But, at the same time, I do think there's an argument to be made for clarity and the need for people to know when it's appropriate to use new words that might not be familiar to others.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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