Book Review: Predicting New Words

Allan Metcalf has written an intriguing book about why certain words are successful, catching on and becoming part of vernacular, while others fail, destined to occupy some obscure corner of the English language or to be forgotten entirely. In Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, Metcalf presents a methodology for predicting which new coinages are likely to be with us fifty years from now and which ones will be on the linguistic scrap heap.

Metcalf, who is a professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society (ADS), has been looking at new words and the factors that lead to their success for years. Every year, the ADS takes a lighthearted look at new or newly prominent words and honors them as “Words of the Year.” Metcalf noted, however, that many of these annual selections quickly disappeared from the national vocabulary, while other words that escaped the group’s notice went on to linguistic success and placement in the very best of dictionaries.

In Predicting New Words, Metcalf presents a methodology for predicting what words are likely to succeed. He has devised a scale, which he calls FUDGE, that consists of five “fudge factors.” These are:

• Frequency of use: a straightforward evaluation of the popularity of a term; the more often it is used, the more likely it is to succeed

• Unobtrusiveness: successful words are not noticed; they are adopted and used unconsciously; words and phrases that are too clever or associated with a pop culture movement tend to fade quickly

• Diversity of users and situations: popularity alone is not enough; the word must also be used by a wide variety of people to be successful

• Generation of other forms and meanings: successful words tend to be used as other parts of speech, e.g., “verbing” nouns, or have multiple meanings or can be extended as metaphors

• Endurance of the concept: the thing the word represents must be lasting if the word is to last as well.

Metcalf takes new words and rates them using the FUDGE factors. He gives each factor a rating of 0, 1, or 2. He then adds up all five factors and comes up with a single number that represents the potential for the word’s success. Ratings of seven or higher are likely to succeed. Words rated a five or six may have hang on at the fringe of the language, but they will not occupy a permanent place in the general vocabulary. Those with four or less are pretty much doomed to failure.

Metcalf applies the methodology to some recently prominent words, predicting their chances of success:

AtmosFear (nervousness about pollution and terrorist attacks on the environment): Frequency: 1 (actively promoted by its coiner, futurist Faith Popcorn); Unobtrusiveness: 0 (too clever, mid-word capitalization); Diversity: 0 (Popcorn is the only one using it); Generation: 0 (no derivatives); Endurance: 1 (acute post 9-11 fears will subside); Total: 2 (the word is doomed).

Homeland; Frequency: 1 (widely used in news reports, but not in daily life); Unobtrusiveness: 2 (simple); Diversity: 1 (mainly government and news media); Generation: 0 (use is limited to phrase homeland security); Endurance: 1 (it will be around as long as there is bureaucratic entrenchment); Total: 5 (survives on government subsidy).

Chad; Frequency: 1 (a specialist jargon term, except during a few months in late 2000); Unobtrusiveness: 1 (unfamiliar, but not odd); Diversity: 1 (jargon term, except in 2000); Generation: 2 (hanging chad, pregnant chad, dimpled chad); Endurance: 1 (punch cards are dying technology, but still have some life left); Total: 6 (it will hang on as a jargon term and as a historical footnote).

Weapons-grade (potent, spicy); Frequency: 2 (in widespread use); Unobtrusiveness: 2 (natural extension of existing jargon term); Diversity: 2 (from the military to Mexican restaurants); Generation: 1 (no derivative forms, but metaphor is continually extending); Endurance: 2 (nonproliferation and terrorism problems are not going away anytime soon); Total: 9 (this one is here to stay).

What seems to be missing from Metcalf’s FUDGE analysis is the need for a word. Surprisingly, Metcalf concludes that the need for a word or phrase in filling a semantic gap has no bearing on the success of a coined term. Take weapons-grade for example. There really is no need for the term. Outside its original nuclear context, any number of existing words are perfectly good substitutes, potent, spicy, deadly, or hot, for example. Yet, the English language still has no gender-neutral, third-person, singular pronoun, despite countless attempts to coin one. People are perfectly willing to employ multiple words with similar meanings and to engage in complex verbal gymnastics to get around gaps in the language.

Predicting New Words is an excellent examination of what makes a successful word. It is written in a clear, straightforward style with an absence of linguistic jargon. The book also contains some interesting material on brand names and on famous coiners of words, notably Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll. The ultimate validity of the FUDGE analysis method remains to be seen—as Metcalf points out it takes some 40-odd years before one can begin to judge the success of a term. But in the meantime, it is a better system for predicting the success of neologisms than taking stabs in the dark.

Hardcover; 208 pages; Houghton Mifflin Co; October 2002; ISBN: 0618130063; $22.00

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