A conservative criticism commonly levelled at new words is that they are ‘unnecessary’ – that we already have a perfectly good and proper word for whatever it is, so why introduce this needless alternative, this objectionable offshoot, this linguistic weed? Because god forbid there should be an overabundance of words. Think of the mess.
Traditionalists decry or resist neologisms they find redundant, those that overlap with existing words rather than fill an obvious gap in the language. There’s simply no need for it, goes the argument. And it’s not just words. New grammatical patterns get the same treatment: after writing about the innovative because X construction, I was told it was ugly and unnecessary.
An aside: Sometimes neologisms are distinguished from nonce-words, words invented for a single occasion or situation. Critics spare these because they’re disposable coinages and not seriously intended as additions to the language. Though sometimes a useful distinction, it’s not always a clear one; in the rapid everyday exchange of language, no one knows what will catch on.
[Cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Guardian]
And so to this idea of necessity. Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, after noting that neologisms ‘should be formed with some regard to etymological decency’ (lest they be monstrous hybrids), says new words adopted directly from other languages are less objectionable ‘provided always that the new words fill a gap‘ (emphasis mine).
William Zinsser, in his classic On Writing Well, puts his foot down firmly on upstarts and colloquialisms he dislikes: ‘I won’t accept “notables” and “greats”and “upcoming” and countless other newcomers. They are cheap words and we don’t need them.’ No amazeroonie for him.
Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says neologisms usually
demand an explanation or justification, since the English language is already well stocked. New words must fill demonstrable voids to survive . . .
And so on. I just don’t get this parsimonious fixation on sufficiency. Avoiding new and ‘needless’ words in formal contexts is all well and good, but what’s wrong with a grand superfluity elsewhere? Will the language look untidy if words float around not filling vital gaps? Will they gum up the works? Arthur Quiller-Couch, in The Art of Writing, found it better
to err on the side of liberty than on the side of the censor: since by the manumitting of new words we infuse new blood into a tongue of which (or we have learnt nothing from Shakespeare’s audacity) our first pride should be that it is flexible, alive . . .
Similarly, G. H. Vallins declares in Better English that there is ‘no more fatuous and harmful activity of the pedant than resisting new inventions’ and that ‘the ultimate question is, Is it necessary?’ To answer that properly we must consider carefully the word necessary.
When we talk about whether there’s a need for some grammatical or lexical innovation, we shouldn’t limit our interpretation to semantics. Language is more than the transmission of lexical meaning, and words meet other kinds of need: social, pragmatic, stylistic, aesthetic.
And creative. We may enjoy the fun of new words, what I’ve described as an ‘instinctive inclination to play with words and letters as though they were an abstract kind of toy’. One of the main arenas for this kind of language play and experimentation is slang, and one of the most interesting books on slang I’ve read in a while is Michael Adams’ Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon.
Slayer Slang offers a robust defence of new, ‘unnecessary’ usages. Discussing the –age suffix popularised by Buffy, Adams says the resulting forms (slayage, sliceage, punnage, etc.) are
semantically less important than in English generally, that is, the words thus supplied usually do not fill gaps in current vocabulary; instead, they perform an important social function within the speech community that uses slayer slang. . . . Necessity is always accompanied by assumptions, however, and to call a redundant form ‘unnecessary’ or ‘needless’ is to presume that one can accurately gauge ‘the need.’ The need for –age in slayer slang is social, not lexical, and a matter of style, though admittedly not the style one reads about in style guides.
One can read into this the traditional conflation of informal English with inferior English – an unfortunate idea with no linguistic basis but great social weight. Later, writing about the speed of language change and the use of what he calls ephemeral language, Adams admits to a ‘bias about the desirability of flux’:
It seems to me that any change is desirable if it serves a purpose. If a word fills a lexical gap, it serves a purpose; if a word or syntactic pattern expresses a particular speaker’s sense of verbal style, it serves a purpose, too. Such ephemeral purposes, along with their ephemeral effects, are completely justified. . . .
The very idea of ‘lexical gap’ is notoriously problematic: ostensibly, there is a difference between being happy and getting a happy . . .
This refers to a usage in Buffy, and more broadly in slayer slang (which extends into the wider Buffyverse), where happy functions as a noun: It gives me a happy; Hence the happy; I’m going to have a happy. It has to do with a happy moment rather than a general state of happiness. Adams continues, persuasively:
If study of slayer slang exposes anything, it’s the potency of style, relative to lexical gaps, in the creation of new words, new senses of words, and new syntactic patterns. . . . The fetish of suffixation, while it sometimes produces forms whose meanings are as subtly distinct from such established alternatives as happy n from happy adj, just as often yields forms without a fillip of lexical meaning different from standard alternatives—drinkage, in terms of lexical semantics, does not mean anything other than drinking. Yet not all meaning is lexical, and the style expressed in drinkage, even though it might not appeal to a language maven any more than a particular cuff or neckline would appeal to Joan Rivers, is style nonetheless.
Amen to that. Now go forth and ephemerise.