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TEDYouth 2014

Erin McKean: Go ahead, make up new words!

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Views 1,571,619

In this fun, short talk from TEDYouth, lexicographer Erin McKean encourages — nay, cheerleads — her audience to create new words when the existing ones won’t quite do. She lists out 6 ways to make new words in English, from compounding to “verbing,” in order to make language better at expressing what we mean, and to create more ways for us to understand one another.

- Dictionary editor
As the co-founder of Reverb Technologies, the maker of the online dictionary Wordnik, Erin McKean is reshaping how we interact with language itself. Full bio

I'm a lexicographer.
00:12
I make dictionaries.
00:13
And my job as a lexicographer
00:15
is to try to put all the words possible
into the dictionary.
00:17
My job is not to decide what a word is;
that is your job.
00:20
Everybody who speaks English
decides together
00:26
what's a word and what's not a word.
00:29
Every language is just a group of people
who agree to understand each other.
00:32
Now, sometimes when people are trying
to decide whether a word is good or bad,
00:37
they don't really have a good reason.
00:41
So they say something like,
"Because grammar!"
00:43
(Laughter)
00:46
I don't actually really care about grammar
too much -- don't tell anybody.
00:48
But the word "grammar," actually,
there are two kinds of grammar.
00:52
There's the kind of grammar
that lives inside your brain,
00:55
and if you're a native
speaker of a language
00:58
or a good speaker of a language,
01:00
it's the unconscious rules that you follow
when you speak that language.
01:02
And this is what you learn when
you learn a language as a child.
01:05
And here's an example:
01:08
This is a wug, right?
01:10
It's a wug.
01:11
Now there is another one.
01:13
There are two of these.
01:15
There are two ...
01:16
Audience: Wugs.
01:17
Erin McKean: Exactly! You know
how to make the plural of wug.
01:19
That rule lives in your brain.
01:22
You never had to be taught this rule,
you just understand it.
01:24
This is an experiment that was invented
by a professor at [Boston University]
01:27
named Jean Berko Gleason back in 1958.
01:30
So we've been talking about this
for a long time.
01:34
Now, these kinds of natural rules
that exist in your brain,
01:37
they're not like traffic laws,
they're more like laws of nature.
01:40
And nobody has to remind you to obey
a law of nature, right?
01:44
When you leave the house in the morning,
your mom doesn't say,
01:48
"Hey, honey, I think
it's going to be cold, take a hoodie,
01:51
don't forget to obey the law of gravity."
01:53
Nobody says this.
01:56
Now, there are other rules that are more
about manners than they are about nature.
01:58
So you can think of a word as like a hat.
02:05
Once you know how hats work,
02:08
nobody has to tell you,
"Don't wear hats on your feet."
02:10
What they have to tell you is,
"Can you wear hats inside?
02:13
Who gets to wear a hat?
02:16
What are the kinds of hats
you get to wear?"
02:18
Those are more of the second kind
of grammar,
02:21
which linguists often call usage,
as opposed to grammar.
02:23
Now, sometimes people use this kind of
rules-based grammar
02:28
to discourage people from making up words.
02:32
And I think that is, well, stupid.
02:35
So, for example,
people are always telling you,
02:37
"Be creative, make new music, do art,
invent things, science and technology."
02:40
But when it comes to
words, they're like,
02:46
"Don't! No. Creativity stops right here,
whippersnappers. Give it a rest."
02:48
(Laughter)
02:53
But that makes no sense to me.
02:54
Words are great.
We should have more of them.
02:56
I want you to make
as many new words as possible.
02:58
And I'm going to tell you six ways that
you can use to make new words in English.
03:02
The first way is the simplest way.
03:07
Basically, steal them from other
languages.
03:09
["Go rob other people"]
(Laughter)
03:11
Linguists call this borrowing,
03:15
but we never give the words back ,
so I'm just going to be honest
03:17
and call it stealing.
03:20
We usually take words for things
that we like, like delicious food.
03:22
We took "kumquat" from Chinese,
we took "caramel" from French.
03:26
We also take words
for cool things like "ninja," right?
03:29
We took that from Japanese,
03:32
which is kind of a cool trick because
ninjas are hard to steal from.
03:34
(Laughter)
03:37
So another way that you
can make words in English
03:39
is by squishing two
other English words together.
03:42
This is called compounding.
03:45
Words in English are like Lego:
03:47
If you use enough force,
you can put any two of them together.
03:49
(Laughter)
03:52
We do this all the time in English:
03:54
Words like "heartbroken," "bookworm,"
"sandcastle" all are compounds.
03:56
So go ahead and make words like
"duckface," just don't make duckface.
04:02
(Laughter)
04:05
Another way that you can make words
in English is kind of like compounding,
04:07
but instead you use so much force
when you squish the words together
04:11
that some parts fall off.
04:16
So these are blend words,
04:18
like "brunch" is a blend
of "breakfast" and "lunch."
04:20
"Motel" is a blend of "motor" and "hotel."
04:24
Who here knew that "motel"
was a blend word?
04:26
Yeah, that word is so old in English
04:29
that lots of people don't know that
there are parts missing.
04:31
"Edutainment" is a blend
of "education" and "entertainment."
04:34
And of course, "electrocute" is a
blend of "electric" and "execute."
04:38
(Laughter)
04:44
You can also make words
by changing how they operate.
04:46
This is called functional shift.
04:49
You take a word that acts
as one part of speech,
04:50
and you change it into another
part of speech.
04:53
Okay, who here knew that "friend"
hasn't always been a verb?
04:55
"Friend" used to be noun
and then we verbed it.
05:00
Almost any word in English can be verbed.
05:05
You can also take adjectives
and make them into nouns.
05:08
"Commercial" used to be an adjective
and now it's a noun.
05:10
And of course, you can "green" things.
05:14
Another way to make words
in English is back-formation.
05:17
You can take a word and you can
kind of squish it down a little bit.
05:20
So for example, in English we had the word
"editor" before we had the word "edit."
05:23
"Edit" was formed from "editor."
05:28
Sometimes these back-formations
sound a little silly:
05:30
Bulldozers bulldoze, butlers butle
and burglers burgle.
05:33
(Laughter)
05:37
Another way to make words in English
05:39
is to take the first letters of something
and squish them together.
05:41
So National Aeronautics and Space
Administration becomes NASA.
05:44
And of course you can do this
with anything, OMG!
05:47
So it doesn't matter how silly
the words are.
05:50
They can be really good words of English.
05:56
"Absquatulate" is a perfectly
good word of English.
05:58
"Mugwump" is a perfectly
good word of English.
06:02
So the words don't have have to sound
normal, they can sound really silly.
06:05
Why should you make words?
06:10
You should make words because every word
06:12
is a chance to express your idea and get
your meaning across.
06:14
And new words grab people's attention.
06:18
They get people to focus on what
you're saying
06:21
and that gives you a better chance to get
your meaning across.
06:24
A lot of people
on this stage today have said,
06:27
"In the future, you can do this,
06:30
you can help with this, you can
help us explore, you can help us invent."
06:31
You can make a new word right now.
06:35
English has no age limit.
06:37
Go ahead, start making words today,
06:39
send them to me, and I will put them
in my online dictionary, Wordnik.
06:41
Thank you so much.
06:45
(Applause)
06:46

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About the speaker:

Erin McKean - Dictionary editor
As the co-founder of Reverb Technologies, the maker of the online dictionary Wordnik, Erin McKean is reshaping how we interact with language itself.

Why you should listen

Erin McKean's job as a lexicographer involves living in a constant state of research. She searches high and low -- from books to blogs, newspapers to cocktail parties -- for new words, new meanings for old words, or signs that old words have fallen out of use. In June of this year, she involved us all in the search by launching Wordnik, an online dictionary that houses all the traditionally accepted words and definitions, but also asks users to contribute new words and new uses for old words. Wordnik pulls real-time examples of word usage from Twitter, image representations from Flickr along with many more non-traditional, and highly useful, features. 

Before Wordnik, McKean was one of the youngest editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary. She continues to serve as the editor of the language quarterly  Verbatim ("language and linguistics for the layperson since 1974") and is the author of multiple books, including That's Amore and the entire Weird and Wonderful Words series. All that, and she maintains multiple blogs, too: McKean is the keen observationalist behind A Dress a Day and Dictionary Evangelist. Is there anything she can't do? Surprisingly, she is notoriously bad at Scrabble.  

 

 

More profile about the speaker
Erin McKean | Speaker | TED.com