My best explanation of why new words come into existence is:

  1. Economy: a new word may allow you to say more with fewer words/syllables/characters (or in less time)
  2. Articulacy: a new word may allow you to be more precise
  3. Flair: a new word may simply sound nicer or more appealing than the next best alternative

However, these are simply off the top of my head. Are these correct, and/or are there other reasons?

Are there any (preferably canonical) references or reading material supporting the incentives explaining why new words come into existence?

  • 1
    You forgot the most important one - new words are also created out of practical necessity so that we can easily refer to new concepts or objects.
    – Alex B.
    Dec 10, 2020 at 15:54
  • 2
    "Social force" doesn't seem to fit into your 3 categories. That's where a word is added to fill a sociopolitical void, e.g. contemporary "woke".
    – user6726
    Dec 10, 2020 at 16:49
  • 1
    Most lexical innovation happens by old roots evolving new meanings or entering other languages. Dec 13, 2020 at 11:39
  • 1
    @user6726 re ""New concepts" is a subcase of 1: rather than use a sentence to talk about it, make a word." - sometimes yes, sometimes no. There are cases when a genuinely new concept is "forced" onto the conceptual apparatus - and thus the language worldview - of a language community via neologisms. A very well-known example is when Dostoevsky changed how надрыв is understood in Russian culture and language.
    – Alex B.
    Dec 13, 2020 at 20:18
  • 1
    @user6726 cf. Russian бизнес business and офис office (obviously loans from English), which were borrowed primarily because of their connotations (and all their ideological baggage) - totally new ideas at the time to Soviet culture - and how they affected the use of other Russian words предприятие business, enterprise or дело business (activity) or контора (office) etc.
    – Alex B.
    Dec 13, 2020 at 20:46

2 Answers 2


Short answer:

Neologisms are uncanonical by nature, a branching off from previous understanding. It is rare to see neologisms studied within the context of modern (especially synchronic) linguistics, with the task often relegated to the other social sciences.

But could we name triggers and incentives for neologisms to occur and then exemplify them through linguistics? Yes.

A new invention or discovery necessitates a name be found for it. A new concept or idea which crosses boundaries will require translations. Or sometimes the emergence of new social circumstances dictates that a word gain a new meaning or lose an old one.

Regarding your suggestion of Economy, Articulacy and Flair; I'd say these play the greatest role in "unconscious" spread of neologisms, but more often than not neologising very much is a conscious effort, often requiring some form of initiative be taken, as I hope to demonstrate in the longer answer below.

Long answer:

Certain incentives drive certain types of neologisms, and may even hamper the development/spread of others. That is to say, there (probably) isn't a magic button which will guarantee that a particular language will churn out more new words, phrases or idioms than any other. But there are switches and knobs, which can incentivize a certain variety of neologism.

I suppose we can divide neologisms into primarily 3 groups:

  1. Consciously Invented (words coined by an author, names given by an inventor)
  2. Consciously Adopted (terms, ideas, concepts or idioms which have been embraced by people in a particular region)
  3. Unconsciously Spread (the "reinvention" of a word, through a change in meaning)

Consciously Invented Neologisms

If you're thinking of an example for a neologism, chances are the first thing to come to your mind will be from this category.

Admirable is a very Shakespearean word.

McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason.

McCarthyism - Wikipedia

Someone wanted to invent such a word, use it and so they did, lucky for them if people followed their example afterwards. Invented neologisms can be analogous, an airplane can have a tail similar to how a bird has a tail. They can be derived, such as by turning friend -a noun- into a verb through to friend. They can be also be compounds such as in the case of television from tele ("far away") +‎ vision.

Invented neologisms can be further divided into two subgroups: literary neologisms and terminology.

Literary neologisms are primarily invented for the sake of literature, but don't let that deceive you into thinking that they are meant to merely be artistic. This is typically referred to as coining and if you can identify the reason a particular coiner has coined a certain word, congratulations, you've found their motivation! Unfortunately this is not always an easy task, as a lot of coined words have been coined anonymously. Still, the patterns employed to construct a particular neologism can give us valuable information that can be used to narrow down the time period or social group it first emerged in.

Terminology on the other hand is a different story. Unlike literary neologisms, terms are a lot more like proper names in that they are instead invented to "name" a particular thing rather than to describe it. So any devices you can think of such as computers, smartphones which didn't exist until a few years ago obviously needed a name after they were (or as they were being) invented. Consider technical terms required for special purposes, a new law or bill which introduces a change in the legal framework of a country ought to have a name for attorneys to be able to refer to it by. It is not always the inventor who gets to choose the name, that duty might fall to a committee in academia or a marketing department in corporate life. So unlike coining, terminology doesn't always carry the inventor's own intent, but it does reveal what the word represents (or should represent).

Coined words are usually studied on a case-by-case basis, as need be. Yet terminology deals with technical words, especially in a technologically advancing society where there will always be a demand for new terms. As such there are some, albeit limited, resources for studying why and how terms come about.

See Terminology: Applications in Interdisciplinary Communication for further reading.

Consciously Adopted Neologisms

Adoption refers to a language gaining a neologism under the influence of another language. It might be loaned in, or nativized via a calque.

Kindergarten itself is a German invention, and the first kindergartens opened in the United States were by German immigrants.

A Little History of American Kindergartens, Smithsonian Magazine

Old Guard soldiers also perform all dignified transfers of fallen soldiers returning to the United States.

3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) - Wikipedia

Borrowing a neologism directly isn't too different from borrowing any other loanword into the language, this is usually accomplished by approximating either spelling or pronunciation of the original word. Except unlike more traditional loanwords which were swapped between speakers of different languages who neighbored one another through trade, a common religion or other cultural developments, neologism loans tend to spread in massive waves that aren't restricted by borders.

Westernization meant that societies who adopted new technologies would have to learn the associated terminology. Emulating a literary movement or representing a new branch of philosophy brought with it a need to copy concepts. And similarly as waves of nationalism, and more recently globalization, have swept across the world all these new ideas and the institutions they bring require their vocabulary be brought in as well.

But sometimes loaning a word directly isn't very straightforward. Consider for instance, what happens if two writing systems differ. When beer, an alcoholic beverage before unknown, was brought into China in the 19th century a new character had to be invented to be able to represent it in writing: 啤 (pí).

Another consideration is that the use of excessive loanwords can lead to alienation. See, To translate or not to translate: Attitudes to English loanwords in Norwegian. Thus, calquing, using words and particles native to a language to "translate" a foreign neologism, is an alternative form of adoption.

Calquing too is all too often an unattributed process, but just as there are known coiners there are also calquers. One of the most famous calquers is Joachim Heinrich Campe, a major figure in the German Enlightenment who is associated with the Verdeutschung (Germanizing) movement. In hopes of bringing the ideas of the enlightenment to the German-speaking masses, Campe calqued a lot of new words, some of which are still in use to this day:

  • Fortschrittlich (Forwardsteply = Progressive)
  • Streitgespräch (Dispute Talk = Debate)
  • Zerrbild (Tugged Picture = Caricature)

The English equivalent to Verdeutschung is known as Anglicisation and that's certainly a rabbit hole in its own right.

To further complicate adopted neologisms, there are multiple channels these neologisms are adopted through.

  • The Dictionary and the Schools:

The first obstacle in the way of a neologism is inertia, if the word is always used in a very limited circle it will inevitably go extinct. But if a word is able to pass this threshold by picking up some momentum, it will now face resistance from the authorities that govern the study of a language: publishers of dictionaries, encyclopedias and of course academia and schools.

This channel is perhaps the most politically variable one. Countries with a linguistically conservative Academia, France's Académie Française comes to mind, will resist loaning and will instead propose calques.

Hashtag Mot-dièse (Diesis - Word)

In countries where "language authorities" are considerably more decentralized, such as in the Anglosphere, it's more often a matter of convention and acceptance. Merriam-Webster has a humorous page on how the word impactful is often accused of being a made-up word. In practice, once a major dictionary begins accepting a new word, the other dictionaries will soon after cave in.

  • Professions:

Going back to language for special purposes, terminology will often enter a language not through teachers but through professions which require this terminology.

Just consider how many words Artificial Intelligence has brought into relevance. Should researchers around the world wait until their dictionaries and academia can settle on a proper translation? Of course not, they'll either take the word as-is from whatever language they saw it from or if they're word-savvy they might try calquing a neologism on their own.

And these neologisms are propagated through conferences, publications or even websites. Argot doesn't have time to wait for language-makers to settle on a name based on the languages conventional rules, because the referent is what really matters.

I could verbosely describe to you the result of a complicated sequence of mathematical transformations in audio processing, or simply call it a cepstrum. No matter how unconventional a word it may seem, audio engineers and machine learning researchers will conventionalize terms such as cepstrum among themselves. So convention here is not by language, but by profession.

  • Socioeconomic Status:

If it's not a profession who are exchanging words and if it's not a school teacher teaching them, then it's still possible for a neologism to be adopted through a certain socioeconomic group, sometimes restricted to a particular region.

The main drive for adoption through this channel was colonialism historically, today being replaced by globalization. The mass displacement of people, and the replacement in the case of the above examples, brings with it a displacement and replacement of words as well.

I could really go for a pastrami sandwich right about now.

Now my niece is a fine lass, but...

The above marked words which are not English in origin, have been so finely woven into spoken language through immigration into the US that it is as if they were "coined" in colonial regions.

As a legacy of the British Empire, today Hello is almost a universally recognizable greeting, even in regions which have limited access to mass media. So much so that a lot of urban centers in South and Southeast Asia continue to use Hello in addition to their native greetings.

There's also the subject of etiquette. Many westernizing countries have calqued Continental greetings. For instance the Turkish görüşürüz or Mandarin Chinese 再见 are adopted from the French Au Revoir (until we meet again/see you later).

We could go on and on here finding new examples, but the point is that sometimes there are pragmatic reasons for a certain segment of society to adopt neologisms before any others.

Unconciously Spread Neologisms

A final category of neologisms are the unconsciously spread. When a neologism is invented, but isn't adopted into the written language it can still endure in public psyche for generations. But by the time it does gain more widespread acceptance, the neologism will inevitably be recycled and reshuffled until it's "reinvented" by a deliberate effort.

Kriol is a creole language spoken in Northern Australia.

Look at all those shanties at the edge of the city!

The invention of a spoken neologism is indeed incentivized by the factors you mentioned such as economy (or rather fluency), particularity and flair. I'd say another very important factor is prestige. For a much deeper dive I'd recommend Tropes of Slang, from Signs and Society for further reading.

Although it is difficult to monitor this unconscious process, it is possible to look at snapshots which have leaked into media and to compare how a particular neologism has changed over time. Semantic shift in particular deals with changes in meaning.

A very fine specimen is the word shanty which is thought to have started as slang which entered English via French or Irish but has come to refer to shacks, illegal pubs, makeshift houses and even sees limited use as an adjective meaning deplorable. Similar to the previous answer, once a necessity to describe an ongoing situation and an intent to describe said situation emerge it's only a matter of time before a word is reinvented. All it takes is a fiery speech from a politician or the sharp piece of a journalist.

Unconsciously spread neologisms depend on relevance for their survival and this relevance is often achieved by reshaping and contorting them to suit the current social atmosphere.


Much like people, languages are ever-changing, that is a given. And just as is the case in people, it's hard to tell when a change occurs due to inherent traits manifesting or external influence taking effect. It's all too easy to write off a neologism as "having occurred naturally" or to deny its existence by claiming it to not even be a real word.

If we do take a moment to reflect on neologisms and why they emerge, we see that the first step is always invention. Indeed, this word may have once not existed, but a change in circumstances has presented a reason for it to exist. From then on, how a word is adopted, spread or reinvented is all about how other changes in circumstances are evaluated.

For doesn't the very invention of a word also constitute a change in circumstances in its own right?

  • 1
    This sentence "It is rare to see neologisms studied within the context of modern (especially synchronic) linguistics" is plain wrong: Research on neologisms was always an active field in linguistics and philologies, and it is of direct interest, e.g., to makers of dictionaries. Dec 31, 2022 at 10:31
  • Thank you for the comment :) Though I will contest that modern linguistics is not about making dictionaries. What you refer to is the branch "Historical Linguistics", diachronic (as opposed to synchronic) and distinct enough from mainstream linguistics that it is often referred to by its historical name of philology. That sounds plain right as far as you have described it to me. Dec 31, 2022 at 10:44
  • 1
    Modern linguistics is about a lot of different topics, and research on neologisms belongs to the field of applied linguistics. You may never hear about it when your favourite subdiscipline of linguistics is X'-theory. Dec 31, 2022 at 11:37
  • BTW, one of the questions of neologism research is what actually makes a neologism in contrast to an ad hoc word that occurs for a short time and goes away quickly. Dec 31, 2022 at 11:39

In literature many writers make words of their own, whose meaning becomes clear from the whole context of the written work. So writers do create words to better convey meaning too. But maybe this can be covered by your number 3.

However, you could also make another classification. Neologisms come to being:

  1. by necessity

  2. by intent

  3. by force of events (where I could give the example of how the word terrorism came to exist).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.