Methods of Word Formation

The formation of new words is not a random process. There are several distinct patterns and paths by which new words come into the language. These fall into four major categories, which in turn can be subdivided.

New Root Formation

Root formation is the creation of new words. Roots come from one of three sources: they are inherited from Old English, they are adopted from other languages, or they are coined by an individual to express a particular idea.

Inherited roots are those native to the language, dating back to antiquity. For English, this means roots that are found in Old English. Of all the words in the English language, relatively few (one or two percent) have Old English roots. But this number is deceptive. About half of the most commonly used words are Old English in origin. So the bulk of everyday English speech and writing is rooted in Old English.

Borrowed roots are taken from another language. In English, the largest group of borrowed terms came from Norman-French and together with Old English became what we call Middle English. There are several reasons for borrowing and each displays its own patterns and “rules”:

  • Domination by another culture. The best example is the Norman domination of England. Norman-French became the language of the courts and the aristocracy.
  • Close contact between speakers of different languages. This can be seen in the American West with adoption of Spanish words, through the use of pidgins and other trading languages, and in the adoption of words from India and other areas of the British Empire.
  • Need. Often a foreign word expresses an idea or a nuance better than existing words. Nouns are frequently adopted for this reason, but not all such words are nouns. Words and phrases such as lassez-faire express ideas that couldn’t be easily expressed without adopting the words into English.
  • Prestige. Often people use foreign words to show a sophistication and worldliness. Foreign words can be a status symbol. Also, certain technical disciplines follow a practice of adopting words from Latin or Greek, because these were once the languages of educated people.

Root creation is the coining of a new word. This process is relatively rare compared to the number of roots from inheritance or borrowing. There are basically two types of root creation, motivated and ex nihilo. The distinction is that in motivated root creation there is some discernible logic behind the new word; in ex nihilo root creation there is not.

One fairly common form of motivated root creation is echoic or onomatopoetic words. Hence cuckoo sounds like the call of the bird. Sometimes the creator attempts to summon connotations present in other words, like Tolkien’s hobbit summons the image of a rabbit.

Ex nihilo root creation has no logic behind it. Examples are grok, invented by Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, or googol, which was invented on request by a mathematician’s nine-year-old nephew.


Modification is where an existing word is changed to form a new one.

Some people use the term folk etymology to describe a fanciful story behind a word’s origin. But etymologists use this term in a very specific, and different, way. Folk etymology is when an unfamiliar word is altered through common use to resemble a more familiar word. Hence, through the process of folk etymology cater corner becomes kitty corner.

Functional Shift. Words often shift their grammatical function over time. Nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns, nouns become adjectives, etc. Run was originally a verb, dating back to about the year 800, but in the 15th century people started using it as a noun, as in to go for a run. Some prescriptivists decry functional shifts as improper English, but it is a natural process.

There are four distinct sub-classes of word formation through abbreviation. These are initialisms, acronyms, clipped forms, and back formations.

  • In initialisms and acronyms, the initial portions of the words or syllables of a phrase are used to form a word. Hence British Broadcasting Corporation yields BBC, to overdose becomes to OD, and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant becomes WASP. The difference between an initialism and an acronym is that an acronym can be pronounced as a single word instead of being spelled out by letter (many people use the term acronym to mean both). Note that acronymic word origins are a twentieth century phenomenon. This method of word formation is unknown in earlier periods.
  • A clipped form is simply one where elements of a word have been dropped in common use. Hence, telephone yields phone.
  • A back formation is a clipped form of a longer word that also undergoes a functional shift. Thus the noun liaison gives birth to its back formation, the verb to liaise. The shift in part of speech distinguishes a back formation from an ordinary clipped word. Unlike derivation or combination, a back formation occurs when components of the original are cut off. The only way to distinguish a back formation from the other two types is by dating. The older term is the original, even if it is the more complex form.


Generation is the creation of new words through combinations of roots and affixes.

Derivation is the formation of new words by adding affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to a root. Unwisely is derived from the root wise.

Compounding or composition is the use of two or more roots to form a word. Egomania is the compound of ego and mania.

One particular type of compounding is the phrasal verb. It is a type of compund where several words combine to form a verb, but instead of combining into a single word they combine into a phrase. Over time, the spaces between the words in the phrase are often lost, forming a single word. Examples are turnabout and takedown.

A blend or portmanteau word is the result from a specific type of compounding, one where several words are fused into one. Thus breakfast and lunch blend to become brunch.

Semantic Change

This isn’t the formation of new words per se, but is the formation of new senses for existing words.

Specialization occurs when a word originally referred to a broad category, but over time narrows in scope to refer only to a once was what a subcategory. An example is liquor; it originally meant any liquid. Mete once referred to any type of food, not just animal flesh. Sometimes the original, general sense is lost. Deor once meant any type of animal, but the general sense was replaced by the French beast, leaving us with deer. Other times, multiple meanings continue to coexist, as in pill, meaning both a method of delivering a drug and, with the definite article, a specific drug for birth control.

Generalization, obviously, is the opposite of specialization. To sail once meant specifically to travel waters via windpower. It lost the specificity of windpower, as in to set sail on a submarine, and eventually came to mean any effortless travel—even if it isn’t physical, as in to sail through the exam.

That last example for sail leads us to metaphorical changes. Sail can be used metaphorically for anything effortless, not just travel, as in to sail through the exam. A metaphorical change is one where a word can serve as a metaphor for something else. So grasp, originally referring to holding something in the hand has come to mean to comprehend. Nitpick, the removal of louse eggs, has come to mean detailed and precise criticism.

Finally, a semantic shift is when a word attaches itself to an associated object. A bureau was once a woolen covering used to cover a desk. It eventually came to mean the desk itself and then the office that used the desks.

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