Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Arid Zones, Blends and Pronounceable Acronyms

Two old and dear cyberfriends, Susan Lister and Pierre Laberge, recently read the Origin of State Names Glossary and were amazed at the definition of Arizona. They had always heard that it was a blend of arid + zona, a cogent though false etymology. I thought my response might be of interest to others.

If anyone ever tells you that a word comes from combining more than one word, by blending words like arid +zona or by using initials, ask for evidence. Combining words is a Madison Avenue way of creating company and product names that began around 1950, maybe in the late 40s. No one created words this way before US advertising came along. I know no words that were created this way before the middle of the last century.

I am making the dates up; they may be a little late but the point is valid: in most languages words are created by derivation rules, adding suffixes, prefixes, or compounding: account: accountant, accountable, accountability, unaccountable, unaccountability, or birdhouse, housebird, etc.

The problem with this method is that English has been losing its affixes for ages has been building its lexicon by borrowing from other languages (especially Greek and Latin) rather than deriving new words from English stems. But now, the English-speaking people are leading the technological revolution afoot in the world (and no longer studying Greek and Latin), so borrowing words has become a problem.

Where can we get new words today? Well, we’ve turned back to English, but now we go outside the derivational rules and create new stems, not derivationally, but by using any means we can think of. Blending words and creating pronounceable acronyms began with commercial terms like motel (motor+hotel) and was picked up by journalists who began adding more like smog (smoke+fog) but within the past 100 years, long after Arizona picked up its name.

Pronounceable acronyms like radar, sonar, and laser soon followed suit from the military-industrial-educational complex. However, posh has been around too long to have emerged as an acronym of “port out starboard home” stamped on steamer tickets in the 19th century, as one urban myth would have it.

So only since the Industrial Revolution have speakers become conscious of needing new terms and only since the Technological Revolution has the need become critical. The rapid advances in science and industry has forced us to become conscious of words themselves, not just the things they refer to. This has resulted in lively discussions of words on the Web and an unrivaled and unconstrained passion to crete new ones.

It is amazing that we have invented ourselves out of our language by creating new things faster than language can name them. And it is fun watching ourselves compensating for this problem but be careful of all the neologisms bombarding us every day; they are coming from uncharted waters. We must also keep in mind that it is a very new phenomenon that did not exist before to the Technological Revolution, so words that emerged before time could not have been created by these new means.



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