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words that shouldn't be

Track That Word!

Want to know more about a word or phrase? Search the Track That Word database to discover the origins and evolution of hundreds of words and expressions. Explore these categories!

College Slang

Cowboy/Western

Emoticons/Text Messaging

Hip Hop

Internet/Technology

Popular Media

Regional American

Slayer Slang

Spanglish

Surfer

Teen/Youth

U.S./ Historical

20th Century Miscellany

buffy the vampire slayer, courtesy 20th century fox film corporation

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* For words or expressions where "first use" is unknown,  the publication date of the reference in which they appear has been cited.

The Presidential Top 10

The top 10 words invented or promoted by presidents, in presidential order are:

  • administration
    (Washington)
  • caucus
    (John Adams)
  • lengthy
    (John Adams)
  • lengthily
    (Jefferson)
  • belittle
    (Jefferson)
  • muckraker
    (Theodore Roosevelt)
  • lunatic fringe
    (Theodore Roosevelt)
  • bloviation
    (Harding)
  • normalcy
    (Harding)
  • misunderestimate
    (G. W. Bush)
  • embetterment
    (G. W. Bush)

Source: Presidential Voices, Metcalf, Allan. Houghlin Mifflin, 2004.

The Accidental Neologist

A person who creates new words, or makes a point of using them, is called a neologist. In his new book, Presidential Voices, author and noted linguist Allan Metcalf points out that to date, George W. Bush and Thomas Jefferson are front runners among presidential neologists. (Jefferson is said to have originated over 100 new words or phrases.)

Metcalf believes whether we like it or not, we're all accidental neologists - the nature of American English makes it impossible not to be. When we add prefixes and suffixes - such as an ism to a president's name - we become neologists. Thomas Jefferson thought it was not only necessary but desirable to create new words and expressions. In an 1820 letter to his old friend John Adams, Jefferson wrote:

I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony. Without it we should still be held to the vocabulary of Alfred or of Ulphilas [nearly a thousand years earlier]; and held to their state of science also: for I am sure they had no words which could have conveyed the ideas of oxygen, cotyledons, zoophytes, magnetism, electricity, hyaline, and thousands of others expressing ideas not then existing, nor of possible communication in the state of their language. What a language has the French become since the date of their revolution, by the free introduction of new words! The most copious and eloquent in the living world; and equal to the Greek, had not that been regularly modifiable almost ad infinitum….

The American
Dialect Society's
Words of the Year

Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the workshop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if ill-formed it is rejected in society, if well-formed, adopted, and, after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries. And if, in this process of sound neologisation, our transatlantic brethren shall not choose to accompany us, we may furnish, after the lonians, a second example of colonial dialect improving on its primitive.

What do you think?

Source: Presidential Voices, Metcalf, Allan. Houghlin Mifflin, 2004.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York