Word Traveler: A word is born

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

Summer's long days encourage us to curl up with something to read, though summer is connected more with light reading than textbooks and heavy novels. Either way, it's still about words!

There are a number of ways in which words are created or come into a language. This includes the formation of longer, more complex words from shorter, simpler words, as well as the formation of all words, simple or complex, from more basic elements of language.

Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato and grammarians like Dionysius Thrax and Terentius Varro were among the first known to study the ways in which words were formed. Their studies were limited to Greek and Latin, but they influenced greatly the study of other languages, including English. At first, the study of word formation was part of grammar, but it later moved on to become part of morphology, or the study of the structure of words. By word formation, we mean the different devices used to build new words. Each type of word formation will result in the production of a specific type of word. So, an understanding of word formation is one way of learning about the different types of words that exist in English.

Terms used to describe the building blocks of words are important. A root or base word is the element left after all the prefixes, suffixes, and other parts have been removed from a complex word. Another way of describing a root word is that it is usually a monosyllabic word upon which another word or words are built. Others may use the terms simple word, simplex, or base word for this concept. For example, the word heart is the root or base word of hearty, heartless, hearten, heartfelt, heartland, heartstrings, heartwarming, warmhearted, and many more.

Stem is another term used to designate a part of a word that remains when inflections (i.e., grammatical parts of a word) are removed. For example, sing is the stem of sings, singing, sang, sung, and be is the stem of the regular and irregular forms am, are, being, been, is, was, were. English has relatively few inflections. In the word unmentionables, the stem is unmentionable; for smallest, the stem is small.

The creation of a new root, base, or simple word is rare compared with other types of word formation. If this does happen, the new root is usually improvised and either echoic or imitative. These are called "motivated" new roots. Zap and vroom represent real or imagined sounds. They are "echoic" or "onomatopoeic" and can either be imitative or symbolic. Splish and sploosh are variants or adaptations of splash: the consonants are retained but the vowels are changed. Other new roots are created by reversals, anagrams, or other adaptations of preexisting forms (e.g., chaise lounge from the French chaise longue, or the title of Samuel Butler's utopian novel Erewhon by a reversal of nowhere).

There are, however, other new roots for which there is no linguistic explanation and these are termed ex nihilo ("out of nothing"). Proper nouns, such as company and brand names (e.g., Exxon, Nylon, Kodak, Kevlar) may simply be invented. Google, the Internet search engine, is another such invented word, influenced, however, by googol (one followed by a hundred zeroes), which was an invented root word. Nonproper noun forms like googol are rare, found chiefly in fictional works, especially fantasy and science fiction. Some examples are grok ("to communicate meaningfully", coined by Robert Heinlein), hobbit ("a lovable elflike creature", coined by J. R. R. Tolkien), and Grinch ("a spoilsport or killjoy", coined by Theodor Seuss Geissel). These are purely arbitrary combinations of letters, not derived in whole or part from any existing word.

Then there are "complex" words and "compound" words, which are actually different things. Complex words are formed via derivation, the process by which a word like unbelievable is built up from the root or base believe, or by which expedite is built up from the base -ped- (Latin for "foot"). Other examples of derivatives are: drinkable, gardener, gentlemanly, and unaware. Compound words are formed by composition or compounding, the process by which blackboard is formed from the simple words black and board, and geography is formed from the combining forms geo- and -graphy. Words like birthday, craftsman, download, freeze-dried, grandfather, highway, newborn, peach-flavored, red-hot, and safeguard are compounds. However, as this book will show, derivation and compounding are just two of a large number of different word-formation processes.

     -- Excerpt from The Life of Language, by Sol Steinmetz and Barbara Ann Kipfer, New York: Random House Reference, 2006

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