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Where Do Words Come From? (4)

Creating New Stems

We have already mentioned that borrowing is a major way in which base words, or stems, are added to the English vocabulary. That is not the only way English acquires new stems; we have ways of creating them, too. For example, if we have a concept that comprises two distinct parts, we sometimes create a new stem by blending the two words referring to those parts, as "sm-og" was created from halves of "smoke" and "fog". If a word is too long, we can clip off parts of it, which is how "caravan" became simply "van". We can also derive backwards! Originally "peas" was a singular word and, like "flour", "water", and many other words, had no plural. However, since it ended on "s" and "s" sometimes indicates plural in English, speakers began removing the "s" and referring to one pea, many peas. This is called back-formation.

We also use initials a lot. An abbreviation of a phrase may become a word in English. Apparently, "identification" was too long for many speakers, so it was reduced to its first two letters, "I" and "D" But those initials now form the basis of a new derivational constellation: "Where are your ID-s?" "Did you get ID-ed?" We presumably now can derive "ID-able", "ID-er", "ID-ing" from this stem. Sometimes the initials form a pronounceable or nearly pronounceable acronym. Well, no red-blooded English speaker is going to let that pass, so NATO is pronounced, well, "nato", and NASA, "nasa". Why not? Even if I could remember "National Aeronautical and Space Administration", who would wait for me to get it out? One of us is bound to be in a hurry.

Blending (Portmanteau words)

Let's take a closer look at these four means of adding to the lexical base of English, beginning with blends. Blends are actually a common type of speech error. When we search our mental lexicons for words, we often come upon two words with the same meaning that are pronounced similarly. Because human beings are so quick at speaking, sometimes we have to use one of these words before we are finished choosing which one to use. Let me show you what I mean.

The adverbs "mainly" and "mostly" are almost interchangeable: their structure and meanings are very similar as are their pronunciations. Someone wanting to say, say, "It was mainly/mostly his own doing", might find both these words simultaneously in his or her mental lexicon while uttering this sentence. The sentence structure is mentally created with one slot for one short word meaning "principally, predominantly". The speaker checks his or her mental lexicons and comes up with two words of exactly the same length, beginning with the same sound, ending on the same suffix, and having the same meaning. Before they can choose between the two, they have to say the word, so they stuff both of them into the one syntactical slot: "It was maistly, ah, mostly his doing." This example actually happened as was recorded. (The speaker in this case caught the error and corrected himself but this does not always happen.) Here are some more blends that occurred as actual speech errors.

English Speech Error Blends
Utterance Blended
My stummy hurts stomach/tummy
There's a dreeze blowing through the room draft/breeze
At the end of today's lection lecture/lesson
This is some universary university/anniversary

There is a natural tendency caused by the nature of lexical selection during speech to create blends but we also do it consciously. When English-speakers began driving their cars everywhere rather than taking the train, someone came up with the idea of a hotel where they could park their motor cars right by the door to their room. This hotel differed from others in that it accommodated what were called then "motor cars". To distinguish this type of hotel from others, someone blended "motor" and "hotel" together, giving us "motel". (In California they are often surrounded by "smog".)


Clipping is an even more wide-spread way of creating new stems. The odd thing about clipping, however, is that the newly clipped word usually continues to exist alongside the original, so "doc" and "doctor" coexist, "phone" and "telephone" don't seem to get in each other's way. The same applies to "TV" and "television", "bio" and "biology", "math" and "mathematics", and so on. Another interesting thing about clipping is that we don't seem to care much which end of a word we clip. We clip the end of "rep(resentative)", "prof(essor)", "sub(marine)", "prep(are)", and "phys(ical) ed(ucation)", but the beginning of "(tele)phone", "(cara)van", "(tele)scope", "(ham)burger". Sometimes we clip both ends! Where do you think we get "(re)fridge(rator)" and "(in)flu(enza)"?

Sometimes clippings do replace their base form. "Cab(riolet)" seems to have stuck, as has "(cara)van". I doubt we go back to the full form of "(aero)plane", from the Greek compound meaning "gliding on air". But clipping is maistly, I mean, mostly (didn't know I could type that fast!) the result of our effort to talk as fast as we think in a society so complex that many simple ideas can only be expressed by long words or phrases. Just as we often clip one activity to get on to another, we clip the words we speak.

We know that clippings are new words, or stems, because they undergo derivations. The clippings for "Chevrolet" and "Cadillac" immediately underwent diminutivization to become "Chevy" and "Caddy", just like "pup" becomes diminutive "puppy" because pups are small. Of course, they all pluralize, too; "profs", "fridges", "burgers" present no problems. So clippings are new stems from which other words may be derived.


We know subconsciously that derivation rules exist. We know that we add "-s" to form plurals, that we add "-er" to make Agentive nouns that means 'someone who does something', and that we add "-ing" to achieve a variety of meanings. Some words accidentally end on these sounds (letters) and occasionally the word has the meaning of the suffix built in. For example, "pedlar" is an old English word that has nothing to do with "peddles" or feet. It meant to sell things. However, because it ended on the sound /êr/ and referred to someone who does something, English speakers have removed the final "ar" and begun using the verb "peddle" to mean "sell things". As a result, the spelling has changed from "pedlar" to "peddler".

Notice that this does not always happen. Butchers are people who do things and the word "butcher" ends on "-er" but we do not say that butchers "butch". Still, this way of creating new stems is a fairly popular one. The verb "aviate" was back derived from "aviator"; the verb didn't exist in Latin, where we borrowed "aviator". The verb "to craze" was back derived from "crazy"; the verb originally meant only 'to crack' (hence our association with cracked heads and pots with insanity). We are also saying that people "laze about", again, a back-formation from "lazy"; the verb did not exist before the adjective. However, the suffix "-y" is common on adjectives derived from verbs, as these examples illustrate: "leak-y, chew-y, billow-y". Removing this sound from the end of words should result in a legitimate verb, right?


As we add more and more concepts to our daily lives, our word-making processes cannot keep up with the require naming. We have to name things and activities with phrases like "New York Police Department", "North American Treaty Organization", "Private Investigator", and "Department of Education". If you are talking about one of these entities, and have to use the term over and over, it can slow down the conversation-after all, each of them refers to one easily comprehended concept. To keep the conversation moving along smoothly, we often just pronounce the initials of the words in the phrase: PI, NYPD, COD, DOD, PDQ, AM, TV.

Often, these pronunciations then become words themselves. It is doubtful, for example, that anyone other than a few scholars knows what "AM" or "SOS" stands for anymore. Yet we use them more and more like a regular noun, as in "in the AM" or "He gave out a series of SOS-s" [esoweses] We also know that these abbreviations are base words, or stems, because they are susceptible to derivation. The verb "to overdose" has almost been replaced by the abbreviation "OD" In speech, it now has all the characteristics of normal verbs, taking all the verb suffixes: "John OD-ed" [odeed], "OD-ing is not my idea of fun", "What happens if she OD-s?" As with clipping, the original word usually stays; however, sometimes the abbreviation becomes a word on its own with its own distinct meaning (as with the case of ID and the infamous "P")

Click here to test your knowledge of English abbreviations.


Pronounceable abbreviations almost always replace their original phrase. In fact, often the phrases are contrived just to produce a new, pronounceable stem. This is true in the case of "laser", reputed to be an acronym of "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation". Who knows why the inventors chose to call it a laser. (It has undergone back-formation, by the way. Some people say "to lase", "lasing", "lasable", etc.) Here are some more acronyms in English.

Origin of English Acronyms
Acronym Origin
radar radio detecting and ranging
scuba self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
snafu situation normal: all fouled up
sonar sound navigation ranging


If you have read this far, you have acquired a general knowledge of how new words arise in the English language. Millions of these tiny bits of sound fly unnoticed from our lips each day. We pay no attention to them because they are such fleeting minutiae of our days. Yet, each one of them has a story, a history, a character if not a personality of its own. They possess characteristic sounds, historical meanings, and are restricted to limited positions in sentences by invisible laws. Words tell us about ourselves, our culture, our attitudes, our times, our relationships with others. There is no nook of our lives that words do not penetrate.

As in the case of a discussion of a hundred or so stars, we have only glimpsed the surface of the verbal universe, yet the stories are complex and fascinating. For this reason alone, those of us who explore this magical space that defines human beings and distinguishes us from all other species, deserve the appellation "lexinauts". The analogy with "astronauts" is perfect. If you are lexinautically inclined, stay with your guides at and we will continue to explore many other constellations and galaxies of words in the future.