By absolutely new single word I mean a word that didn't exist in the language and was made up using the correct phonology of the language (I am using the qualifier "correct" because I am assuming that in today's world every language has an idea of what sounds are native and what aren't).

By around pre existing words I mean coining words via contraction, compounding, portmanteau etc where words could be native or loanwords. A word like "computer" also belongs to this category.

(Note that getting a loanword doesn't belong to either category and I am not interested in that.)

I am sure many words in many languages that appear single and absolutely new could be shown to be compounds of some kind that morphed into the form at hand. However, some words were indeed absolutely new, and they had to have been. In English, a modern absolutely new word that comes to mind instantly is "grok" (I am not sure if this belongs to the second category, in which case kindly ignore this example) though this is mostly slang.

So my question is, do languages still coin absolutely new single words? If yes, are such words typically slang, or do some of them get added into formal register?

PS: Are there proper linguistic terminology that could replace the ones that I made up?


  1. I was originally looking for absolutely new single words that weren't slang, but I've lowered my expectation and have removed that restriction.

  2. To stress, lest people mistake, I am not focusing on English language - I used English just to give some examples.

  • Was Twitter a word prior to the company's founding? And is it composed of other morphemes? I think the answers are 'no' and 'no'. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 2:47
  • 3
    Well, except it was (etymonline.com/index.php?term=twitter), and there are clear morphemes (something like 'twit' and '-er'). Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 5:08
  • I think the mention of slang is a problem for this question. One could argue that most new words are slang, or jargon, etc. Do you have a theoretical basis to frame the question this way? And what is the alternative scenario when a 'language coins new words'? Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 5:12
  • @JeremyNeedle Yes, I removed the slang as it seemed too restrictive etc. I didn't understand your questions about theoretical basis and alternative scenario.
    – vin
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 6:18
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    All I can say is ... meh.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 12:38

2 Answers 2


Do arbitrary coinages happen in language? Yes, but they appear to be rare, especially if we also remove onomatopoeias and sound symbolism from consideration (which OP has not done). FWIW, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=%22arbitrary+coinage%22 lists 6 instances of "arbitrary coinage" for English; two (jillion, zillion) are clearly analogical, which leaves three brand names (Piggly-Wiggly, Kodak, Pyrex), and sylph, which the dictionary concedes is likely a portmanteau of silva "forest" and nymph.

Brand names do appear to be the one area where completely arbitrary coinages are common—and the emergence of brand names as a phenomenon of consumerism makes this a late phenomenon in language. And of course, brand names are not completely arbitrary either; sound symbolism and connotative family resemblances go into them, as shown in this account of Kodak:

“I devised the name myself. The letter “K” had been a favourite with me — it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with ‘K.’ The word ‘Kodak’ is the result.” (System Magazine 1920s)

@vin pondered in comments:

I was just pondering origin of words to identify things and describe ideas and it seemed to me that languages (or speakers rather) stopped inventing the former kind long back and began using those as the basis to make new words of the second kind.

In other words, the genesis of language presumably did involve wholesale arbitrary coinage, rather than reuse of existing language stock. Well, maybe, though I wouldn't underestimate the role of sound symbolism in any initial genesis of language. But Uniformitarianism makes it the default assumption that people have been reusing existing language stock, rather than inventing new words from whole cloth, for as long back as language has been recognisable as such. We wouldn't expect any difference in that regard between Early Modern English (pre-consumerism) and Sumerian.

  • 1
    Maybe one place to look at is fiction and literature, where authors might set out to coin deliberately arbitrary words ("fnord", "vorpal", "quark", "nerd"), & sometimes they may reach general usage. Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 9:57
  • 1
    And OP already cited "grok". Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 9:58
  • I am not informed about the world of linguistics but it appears, based on your paragraph responding to my comment, that linguists are too happy to mark words as 'of uncertain origin' and get on with other academic activities instead of trying to really figure out the origins.
    – vin
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 19:01
  • Etymology is extraordinarily hard work (linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/28288/…), and sometimes we honestly can't tell. We can tell that making words completely out of whole cloth is rare, and that there tend to be special circumstances behind it. Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 22:11

The answer is definitely yes, although really new coinages are rare beasts. The example that comes to my mind, blurb, is already more than a century old.

  • 1
    TO make this more explicit, most modern languages are spoken in a literate environment, which s a bit of conservatism (change is not as easy). In pre-literate situations, all sorts of neologisms through sound changes, semantic drift, colocation, happen all the time. Many neologisms, pre- or otherwise- literate, are plain borrowings from another language, either from mixing of speakers or by scholarship.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 12:43
  • @mitch This comment makes a lot of sense. There seems to be correlation between literacy, FWIW, and being uninhibited about language usage. Even today, it seems most slang, including words that appear to be arbitrary coinages, tend to come from the lower strata of the society, which, while not quite lacking in literacy per se, is still not as uptight as the classes above it.
    – vin
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 18:57
  • @vin That sounds like it makes sense, but I think is just a local phenomenon, very much dependent on current sociological circumstances. Many of the Latinate neologisms in English are from the European renaissance where all the European intelligentsia were passing around fancy sounding new words. And re English in particular, the 1066 Norman invasion established the French as the social and linguistic upper class, which makes it so easy for English speakers to read French headlines, whereas German, a much closer language syntactically, is usually inscrutable.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 19:17
  • @Mitch Its strange that I find your comment more insightful than you do! I am going to run with it.
    – vin
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 19:46

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