October 17:  Coin a Word Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 2005, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert unveiled a new word: truthiness (1).

On this night’s show the irony was especially thick, however, because as it turned out truthiness was not a new coinage after all.  As pointed out on the language website Language Log, the word dates back to 1824 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2).

Even though Colbert cannot claim credit for coining the word, he can claim to have popularized it.  In fact, he got the last laugh on the “wordanistas” when The American Dialect Society selected truthiness as its Word of the Year in 2005.

New words, also known as neologisms, are popping up more than ever in the age of technology and the internet.  So many newly minted words are appearing, in fact that there are entire websites devoted to tracking neologisms.  One such site is Word Spy, where visitors can witness the genesis and evolution of words before their very eyes.  The words at Word Spy are not in the dictionary; instead, they are mere candidates for the big lexicographical show.  If they catch on and are used by real people, especially in written communication, they may make it from Word Spy to Webster’s.

One of the oldest sources of new word coinages comes under Johnson’s second category.  It’s a special kind of compound word called a kenning – a figurative compound word construction.  In the Old English poem Beowulf, for example, a “ship” becomes a “sea-steed” and the “sea” becomes the “whale-road.”  Although kennings are a very old form, they represent one of the most vibrant and playful aspects of our language, an aspect that we see alive in our language today in the following examples:

Hot potato = something no one wants

Rug rat = toddler or crawling baby

Tree hugger = an environmentalist

Bookworm = someone who reads a lot

Pig-skin = a football

Gas-guzzler = a car with poor gas mileage (3)

Notice that characteristic of a kenning, each example above is made up of two words to form a compound word. Furthermore, each kenning makes no direct reference to the person or thing it is naming; instead, each relies on a figurative comparison.  Each kenning, therefore, is a beautifully packaged compact metaphor.

Today’s Challenge: Coin a Kenning

What new two-word figurative combination would you use to rename a noun, such as a pencil, a Post-it Note, a teacher, a bank, or cat?  Play around with words by creating some of your own kennings.  Pick a noun and brainstorm some ideas. Remember, to qualify as a kenning your compound must be figurative, so avoid directly naming the person or thing you’re renaming.  A pencil, for example, might be a word-wand, a thought twig, or a sentence stick.  Once you have a few ideas, pick your best one, and begin actually using it in conversation. This will be the true test of whether or not it resonates and packs a powerful enough punch to be picked up by real people. (Common Core Reading 4)

1-This Day in Quotes.com. True or False: Stephen Colbert Coined the Word ‘Truthiness’? 17 Oct. 2012.

2-Zimmer, Benjamin. Truthiness or Trustiness? Language Log 26 Oct. 2005. .

3-Your Dictionary.com. Examples of Kenning.

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