Overcome the distraction of shiny neologisms

Karin Ciano, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Does this ever happen to you? I was listening to talk radio in the car when I heard an interviewee — a trained professional in his field no doubt — mention the need to “incent” people to do something.

So. Distracting. I nearly had a wreck. Subzero temperatures, cars abandoned on the side of the highway, construction, rush-hour traffic, drivers looking at their phones — no problem there, but a really ugly neologism? It was like having an insect crawling over my brain that I couldn’t brush off all the rest of the drive.

Why do bad neologisms (new words) get our attention? Surely enough, scholars have proposed a theory. “Words are everyday things, as central to our daily lives as the clothes we wear, the tools we use and the vehicles we drive,” write Tony Beale and Cristina Butnariu in their article Harvesting and Understanding On-Line Neologisms. And like everyday things, words are subject to basic design principles. “A good design makes it easy for a user to mentally visualize, or conceptualize, the inner workings of a product, while a bad design causes a user to construct an inaccurate conceptual model that leads to misuse of the product and inevitable human error.” Put another way, a well-designed neologism makes intuitive sense and can be used easily, while for a poorly designed neologism, “the mapping between appearance and function will be confusing and counter-intuitive,” leading to reader distraction and possibly road accidents.

A good new word fills an empty niche in the lexicon’s ecosystem. Historically, new words have been slow to gain acceptance, but when they do, we can’t imagine how we spoke without them: think couch potato, do-it-yourself, glitch, meritocracy, workaholic, and yes, talk radio (all from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) or more recently, BFF, crowdsource, frenemy, gamification, hackathon, and humblebrag, to name a few more. They have a function, so we accept them.

Good new words also have a form that follows their function. They’re vivid, concrete, and descriptive; they marry two familiar concepts or describe something new that is already familiar. They are useful and (relatively) short compared to the alternatives. As the scholars observe, their appearance matches their function—the pieces of the new word connect in an obvious way. Good new words are easy to pronounce, remember, and use as directed.

Then there’s the other kind. Bad neologisms (speaking of which: somebody coin me a word!) are clumsy, redundant, confusing, or just not necessary. Words like hashtag, phablet, and incent.

Incent has another strike against it: it’s a back-formed verb. As Garner observes, “back-formations are words formed by removing suffixes from longer words that are mistakenly assumed to be derivatives”—for example, in the 1990s when we sheared the -tion off emotion to create emote. (We intended it to be funny and ironic, but twenty years on I can say things got out of hand.)
Back-formations appeal to lawyers because too-short words make us nervous. Consider how often I have written remediate (instead of remedy), administrate (versus administer) or cohabitate (versus cohabit): I shouldn’t, but I do. Back-formations aren’t necessarily bad, but the same design rules apply. Creating jell from jelly makes sense, as does type from typewriter or diagnose from diagnosis—these words serve a need. But when I’m just creating a synonym for a better word? Not so much.

If you’re eager to try out a new word you heard on the radio, a few words of caution. Do not rush into a relationship with that word or allow it into one of your professional sentences until you’ve done your diligence.

Step 1: Is it a neologism, and if so, how well accepted is it? I ask myself whether I’ve ever seen it in print, and if so, where. (Professionally edited works count. Blog posts and tweets don’t.)
Step 2: Check with the authorities. Garner’s Modern American Usage puts an *asterisk next to questionable words, and notes how well accepted they are. Incent is stage 1, “rejected.” (Yes!!!) Its cousin incentivize is stage 2, “widely shunned.” As a rule, I reject what Garner rejects and shun what Garner shuns, and no one has ever thought less of me for it.

Step 3: Check out Google Ngram viewer, which shows you how frequently words have appeared in print since the 1800s. Incentive is robust, while incent is vanishingly rare. That should be a hint.

Step 4: If you’re still not ready to give up on the new word – run it by someone your parents’ age, and see what they think. (If you don’t know anyone at least as old as your folks, go meet someone. In the meantime, don’t use the word.)

Step 5: Run your word (or its parent word, such as incentive) through a dictionary or thesaurus. Incentive (a noun) is “a thing that motivates or encourages.” So instead of back-forming the verb incent, substitute motivate or encourage, or check a thesaurus for synonyms such as inspire, prompt, or move. This is English; there are always options.

I hope this will inspire you all to remedy needless back-formations and revive the shorter, more vivid words they tend to replace.