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RHETORICAL TROPE #46: Neologism

The creation of new words – AKA, neologisms – is all but a daily activity in our culture. In fact, awareness of neologisms and their meanings can be considered a measure of the degree to which one is up-to-date with a rapidly changing world. At the same time, such awareness can also be a mark of membership in a sub-culture or movement.

Take, for example, the word “brony.” A portmanteau of the word “bro,” which is itself an abbreviated form of “brother,” and “pony,” a “brony” is a young man who has become a fan of the children’s show “My Little Pony.” (This leads into a discussion beyond the realm of this blog.)

A portmanteau with a little more recognition is “sexting,” a reference to the fad of sending sexually explicit text messages. (This is yet another topic not within the scope of this blog.)

Waiting for the next “care” to come along…

In the realm of political and other scandals, the suffix “-gate” has been in almost constant use since the original politically motivated break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.It’s most recent appearance was in the “bountygate” scandal, which broke in March of this year, revealing scheme in which members of the New Orleans Saints football team were rewarded for “big plays” especially ones that resulted in injuries for the opposing team.

It can be tricky to use neologisms effectively. Unless their meaning is immediately clear, the result can be confusion rather than illumination for reader or listener, which is contrary to the purpose of rhetorical practice. At the same time, once a neologism is in universal use, its power to identify one as being on the cutting edge or a member of a select group, is significantly weakened.

One can, of course, darn the torpedoes and coin one’s own words. But writers and speakers can be difficult to tempt into accepting words that are obvious in their fabrication. One should not appear too eager.

The key then, is to use a neologism almost immediately after its appearance and then refrain from repeating it unless and until it has become commonly understood and accepted. Even then, one must consider its useful lifespan to be limited in which case, being among the first to stop using it is the indicator of being on the cutting-edge of language.

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