Updated: May 30
Vocabulary change in the English language encompasses the loss of old words and senses, as well as the arrival of new ones. However, accurately determining the number of new words entering English annually poses a significant challenge. It is difficult to predict which of the newly introduced words will become permanent features of the language and which will remain transient, such as slang and fashionable usage. A study examining new words and phrases in English during the 1970s revealed that as many as 75 percent of them ceased to be used after a relatively short period of time (Ayto, 1999).
Quantifying New Words
Various publishers and dictionary-providers compile collections of "new words" based on words observed in print. These compilations suggest that hundreds of new expressions emerge each year. For instance, the publication "Twentieth Century Words" by Oxford University Press features approximately 5,000 items, including terms like "applet," "cool Britannia," and "Dianamania" from the 1990s, "AIDS" and "cellphone" from the 1980s, and "action replay" and "detox" from the 1970s (Ayto, 1999). On average, around 500 new words appear every decade, which roughly translates to one new word per week. Notably, these collections represent only a selection from everyday written language. Capturing neologisms entering spoken language, which are rarely written down, poses a greater challenge. Additionally, tracking new meanings of existing words, such as those developed in online contexts like text and tweets, further complicates the assessment.
Sources and Influences of New Words
The proliferation of new words entering the English language should not come as a surprise, considering the diverse domains that motivate their creation. These domains span arts, business, computing, the environment, leisure, medicine, politics, popular culture, sports, science, and technology. For example, in early 2020, the Cambridge Dictionary's "New Words" website listed terms like "fearware" (a cyber attack exploiting fear), "xenobot" (a small robot created from living cells), and "blue mind" (a calm state of mind induced by proximity to water).
The Impact of Globalization and the Internet
The advent of the internet and its various manifestations has transformed the sources of English vocabulary. Previously, new vocabulary encountered in Britain, whether originating within the country or imported from elsewhere like the United States, largely derived from British sources such as newspapers, magazines, radio, television, occupational jargon, and street slang. However, the internet has now made it possible for individuals to directly encounter the worldwide lexical variety of English without physical travel. Accessing extensive regional vocabularies, like those from South Africa, has become as simple as a mouse-click away (Mort, 1986).
The cumulative effect of global English vocabulary is already evident on the internet, gradually shaping our linguistic consciousness regardless of geographical location. Our comprehension of foreign vocabulary is expanding, and over time, some of these terms will integrate into our spoken or written production. It is not a passive process, as the growing number of individuals, particularly younger generations, engaging in chatrooms, blogs, virtual-reality games, and social media are exposed to an unprecedented range of English varieties. Within a single chatroom, participants from different parts of the English-speaking world coexist, showcasing diverse dialects and varying levels of language proficiency.
Consequently, linguistic accommodation becomes prevalent, influencing language usage in both directions. British individuals may be influenced by South African English, and vice versa, leading to a brave new lexical world.
The influx of new words into the English language remains an ever-evolving phenomenon. While the exact number of new words introduced annually is challenging to quantify, collections of new words indicate a significant influx, spanning various domains. The influence of globalization and the internet has expanded access to worldwide lexical variety, contributing to a dynamic linguistic landscape. As the boundaries between dialects and language competencies blur online, linguistic accommodation becomes widespread, resulting in the exchange and integration of words from different English varieties. The future of English vocabulary holds exciting possibilities as it continues to adapt and reflect the trends, inventions, and attitudes of contemporary society.
Ayto, J. (1999). Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mort, S. (Ed.) (1986). Longman Guardian Original Selection of New Words. London:
Longman Higher Education.