Novel Lexemes in English: Variations, Sources, Stylistic Description

Scientific Study, 2010

48 Pages




1. On Some of the Semi-productive Elements in Modern English

2. On the Specifics of Modern British and American Slang

3. The Double-Tongued Dictionary as a Dictionary of the Fringe of English

4. Conceptual Integration in Blends as Illustrated by the Lexeme “glitterati”

5. Portmanteau VS Blend: Linguistic Opposition or Synonyms?

6. Coinages versus Malapropisms

7. Verbal Blunders and What They Reveal about Human Communication

8. On the Nature and Specifics of Some Speech Errors





The present book is a short collection of articles written by the author over the time span of 2009-2010. Hopefully, they present a coherent unity with links provided throughout the body of each article as well links between them. The topicality of present paper is down to several factors. First, since novel lexemes emerge in the English language on a regular, I would even go as far as to say, on a daily basis, the study, or at least, a comprehensive description of some of them could hardly ever become redundant or superfluous. Second, it constitutes a beneficial task to see how such novel lexemes are distributed over various types of discourse and stylistic strata. Third, it enables one to see which slots in different spheres of human activities are more likely to be filled and which are left gaping. Going behind the reason thereof could provided an inkling of extralinguistic realia that have sprung up relatively recently and also of societal preoccupations if a coinage, be it semantic of structural, is synonymous to a lexeme that already exists.

It should be noted that most of the novel lexemes described and tackled in the present paper are stylistically marked and/or emotionally tinged, consequently their nature is not terminological. The understanding of a novel lexeme underpinning this study is based on the premise that a new word is a word that (i) is not registered by 90% of general-purpose dictionaries, is (ii) new either in meaning or in form, is (iii) either stylistically neutral (term) or marked. The rationale behind choosing such a broad understanding of neologisms is to highlight the fact that words are not only created with the sole purpose of filling in the nominative lacunae, but are also resorted to to express a person’s attitude and appraisal of something as well as to convey a speaker’s emotional state, thereby serving the function of a verbal laxative.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that some new words are created unintentionally, they are a result of speech error or a slip of the tongue. One of the consequences of the former case may be the emergence of a malapropism – a dictionary lexeme which in its graphic and phonemic form resembles another word. More often than not, it surfaces in the speech of foreigners, children and those who are not completely sure of the meaning and the form of the word they pronounce. In the latter case (a slip of the tongue) a new word may pop up in the speech of anyone – ranging from an academic to a semi-educated. A slip of the tongue is a temporary disrupture in speech performance, which is not connected with a lack of knowledge, so much so, that in some cases the opposite may be true: a verbally competent, fluent and articulate person may have several competing lexemes to choose from, both of which strive to be part of the speech continuum. If by the time of the actual speech utterance the speakers is still veering between two (or possibly more) alternatives the result will be a slip of the tongue, which as often as not is represented by a blend. The logical question that arises is: can such a blunder be regarded as a novel lexeme worthy of a lexicologist’s attention, not to say description and minute study? It seems that the question could be answered in the affirmative, because, firstly, such a word be suggestive of further structural and semantic types of blends, which are currently a real draw for many scholars.

The material amassed shows that a potentially fruitful source of novel lexemes is slang, which have always attracted emotionally charged and expressely critical and judgemental nominations, hence part of the present research is focused on the specifics of modern slang.

It is hoped that the book will be of help to those interested in modern word-forming tendencies as well as in some of the postulated explanations for them.

1. On Some of the Semi-productive Elements in Modern English

Ever since the 1940s the number of semi-affixes in the English language seems to be on the rise, which is partially triggered by the events of the Second World War and partially by the reasons that yet wait to be investigated. The status of such forms is also contestable: preserving the semantics of the word from which they got differentiated, they might modify its meaning, lending the word a negative connotation. The nomenclature of such words is probably not that important, given the right treatment of their structural and semantic aspects. The only objection that could be brought forward is the treatment of elements such as “-worthy”, “-happy”, “-burger”, etc. as combining forms in view of the existing term of the same name applied to elements of Greek and Latin origin that are mostly used to form neologisms, the elements being bound and not used as independent words. These elements could be given as a finite list: “-grapho”, “-nomics”, “psycho-”, etc. “Worthy” and other elements of the kind that are used as independent words do not obviously belong here. So, henceforth we shall call them semi-affixes. Most of the semi-affixes described below are of colloquial or slangy nature, consequently they are not registered by dictionaries. As far as their productivity is concerned, they are mostly of occasional nature, as a result their productivity is limited. Some of the affixes treated below exhibit different degrees of independence and used to be part of blends, from which they got differentiated. The stylistic and pragmatic value of semi-affixes can hardly be overestimated: for one thing, they are probably used for the sake of language economy: instead of, for instance, saying that someone is worthy of a prize you could say “he’s prizeworthy” or likewise instead of saying “one who has been bombed” you could say “bombee” (in the latter case it is, obviously, an affix, not a semi-affix). Given the occasional shift in the predominant semantics of a semi-suffix, when added to a stem it may render the resultant lexeme facetious and euphemistic, which is probably why such elements are sometimes used to form professionalisms (e.g. block-buster). The word-building status of such words is not a one-way matter, either. It may be suggested that they are compound words, because the words are formed by juxtaposing two independent words. On the other hand, the shift of meaning the elements undergo should also be taken into account (for example, “slap-happy” means “drunk” and “bomb-happy” means “being scared stiff” due to bombing). Consequently, there emerged many words formed as analogical extensions of their prototype. Semi-affixes are multi-functional in that they are, firstly, a means of space and sense economizing; secondly, are, more often than not, add stylistic connotation to the resultant word as compared to the alternative word combination; thirdly, may form a word possessing a ludic function.

The regular suffix “-er”, as is shown below, is occasionally added to noun stems to form a word of colloquial or slangy nature.

Gaining in favour among the recognized semi-affixes is the suffix “-worthy”, which of late has cast loose from such older words as “seaworthy” and “trustworthy”, giving rise to the following new words: “newsworthy”, “courtworthy”, “credit worthy”, “ear-worthy” (worth listening to), “prizeworthy” (D.L. Bolinger, 1991, p. 89). Another feature of modern English is the application of the suffix “-er” added not to a verb stem but to a nominal one: “beefer” (a football player), “first termer” (one serving his first term in public office), “bottle-necker” (one guilty of obstructing national defence), “inner circler” (a member of the inner circle of government), “low-incomer” (a recipient of a low income), “rank-and-filer” (a member of the rank-and-file). The suffix “-ee” denoting passivity has been gaining popularity and productivity ever since 1941. Many but not all new derivatives have to do with the war and military conscription, for example “trainees”, “selectees”, “draftees”, “conscriptee”, “bombee”, “purgee” (a victim of political purge), “pollee” (one polled by a public-opinion institute), “evacuee”, “departee”, “rushee”, “crack-upee”, “standee”, “quizzee”, “squezee” (D.L. Bolinger, 1991, p. 90). During the Second World War when women were drawn into positions ordinary filled by men, the feminine suffix “-ette” experienced a revival. Thus, the first volunteer women fighters were known as “firettes”. Added to a noun, it denotes either an occupation or a characteristic of a woman: “sailorette”, “laughette”, “bachelorette”, “glamourette”, “stagette”, “undergraduette”. Examples of “-eer” (which is a functional variant of “er) show that it clusters around nouns suggesting “excess” or “energetic action”. It was suggested by D.L. Bolinger (1991) that words with this affix are formed by analogy with “engineer”: “aeroneer”, “balloteer”, “blacketeer”, “privateer”, “revolutioneer”, “sloganeer”, “unioneer”. The rationing during the second World War extended the application of “-hog”, which started to be used as a “semi-affix” with the general meaning of somebody or something who consumes a lot or spends much: “gas-hog”, “heat hog”, “coffee-hog”.

According to D.L. Bolinger, the habit of dissecting words is ingrained in American English. As a result there form neo-pseudo-suffixes that get abstracted from independent words. Some examples provided by D.L. Bolinger are “trainasium” (training + gymnasium), “pencilaterist” (pencil + philatelist), “radiobotage” (raidio + sabotage), “radioboteur” (radio + saboteur), “popsicle” (pop + isicle), “magdraulic” (magnet + hydraulic), “scripteur” (entrepreneur, connoisseur, coiffeur), “photogenic” (radiogenic), “Perma-lastic” (elastic), Fleur-o-lier (chandelier), “tenderoni” (macaroni), “lipscape” (landscape), “bookvertising” (advertising), “spamwich”, “turkeywich”, “duckwich” (sandwich). The question of whether such words can be considered blends is an open one, because, for one thing, some such words look like compounds and, for another, an investigation must be carried out as to whether these words have been formed by an application of two words or whether a pertinent suffix is added to the stem.

The combining form “-happy” (in our terminology “semi-affix”) meaning “dizzy”, “exhilarated” seems to have been on the rise ever since the 1940s: “slap-happy” (drunk), “hate-happy”, “Hitler-happy”, “power-happy”, “bomb happy” (shocked and demoralized by bombing), “trigger happy”(to shoot at anything at any time). The form “para-” that is now used is familiar both as a Greek prefix and as a combining form from Italian, the latter being the form which combined with “chute” and made “parachute”. The shortened form seems to have arisen in England but it has been popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It was first used in the word “paratroops” in 1940. Since then there have been many others, some well established, others occurring in only one citation. Here is a chronological order of the appearance of some such words: 1940 – “paratroops”, “parashooter”, “parashot”, “paraspotter”, 1942 – “para-ski”, “para-skier”, 1943 – “parapup”, “paraspy”, 1944 – “parapants”, “parapooch” (a dog dropped in a parachute), “parafemmes” (French women sent down by a parachute), “paramines”. In all these words the element “-para” is a bound form and since it is always added at the beginning of words, it tends to act like a prefix. It is so described by Mr. Allen Walker Read: it is used “to denote something sent down by parachute” [cited by I.W. Russel, 1991:103]. It must be noted, however, that another meaning of “para-” is “above” or “around”, this meaning is realized in the word “parapsychology” – an officially unrecognized part of psychology.

To illustrate the history of the element “-buster”, here is a list of words containing this element, the order being chronological: “broncobuster” (1888), “belly buster” (1890), “middle buster” (1907), “trust-buster” (1911), “bush-buster” (1933), “chin-, “clay-, “company-, “contract-, “rivet-, “skull-, “sod-, “target-, “thumb- buster” (1934), “bull-buster”, “tummy-buster” (1935). In view of the length of time “-buster” had been used as a semi-affix (by 1949), one would expect this function to have been recognized some time before. Yet it was not until 1943 that professor D.L. Bolinger noted that “trust-buster” and “gang-buster” are the pivotal examples of “-buster”, which might be defined as “one who seeks to destroy an organization regarded as undesirable”. A year later, in 1944, the Addenda to the “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” recognized “-buster” as “the second element of an objective compound” and “in familiar designations of guns, bombs, etc. citing in illustration “broncho-buster”, and the war-born “block-buster”, “dam-buster”, “tank-buster”. I. William Russell referring to D.L. Bolinger states that this element is either colloquial or slang suggesting that it might be a corruption of “burst” [Russell, 1991, p. 118]. The semi-suffix “-hop” is added to the word meaning “to change quickly and/or sporadically”: “booth-hop”, “castle-hop”, “publisher-hop”, “party-hop”, “tavern-hop”, “table-hop”, “island-hop” [Russell, Porter, 1991, p. 171].

Methodology-wise, the active usage of some such words must be trained with English language students, for in a way this is a mark of genuine English knowledge: practice shows that of their own accord Russian learners of English seem to be reluctant to use them in speech, which is partially explained by a different typological status of Russian, where agglutinative and amorphous constructions are rarely used. One more explanation could be that these words are branded uncodified and occasional. This “ocassionality”, however, is not a sign of careless language usage, but a hallmark of true idiomaticity.

2. On the Specifics of Modern British and American Slang

Over the years slang has been an ample source of novel lexical items, be it from structural or semantic point of view. Across different linguistic traditions opinions vary as to how slang should be treated – as a vagabond language, which is insensitive to and negligent of language norms, as well as referents it tends to downgrade or play down, or as the provenance of metaphor, be it poetic or trite. If metaphor it certainly is, the poetic value of slang could be disputed. Poetry in the traditional sense of the word is aimed predominantly at elevating the subject or, in case it deserves censure, at giving its due by revealing some hideous aspects of society. In contrast, slang tends to bring elevated or neutral subject-matter down to earth, performing an anti-euphemistic function, it divests the clad, overfeeds the satiated, makes thin people still thinner and those with receding hairline – bald. In other words, it exaggerates the negative and dishonors the positive. Therefore, one would be well-advised not to resort to it more often than is absolutely indispensible, and when finding oneself in a group of more than two unfamiliar people to avoid it altogether, otherwise the social repercussions of blatantly violating the register may be far worse than apprehended.

One of the most popular means of creating new slang words is semantic readjustment of some existing lexeme, often in such a way that the basis for the transference is hardly traceable, though in most cases it is. Thus, one wouldn’t have much difficulty in deciphering why the affectionate name for woman’s breasts is “girls”. After all, they form part of any “girl” and are deemed by some as one of the most compelling. Seriously speaking (or writing), the two most typical types of semantic transference are not unknown to slang. The above case is an example of metonymy, namely synecdoche, which is a type of transference when the whole represents some part or vice versa. The number of slang synonyms a word may have, seems to be contingent on the nature of the referent the word denotes: the more general and vague it is, the more slangish counterparts a word is likely to have. Another factor is the relative importance or value of the referent for the speaker – the more relevant the item is the more slang names it is likely to develop. By way of illustration, the stylistically neutral lexeme “money” and the stylistically marked, emotionally tinged lexeme “cool” could be furnished. The former seems to have no fewer than a dozen slang synonyms: bank, Benjamins, bread, cabbage, cake, cash, change, cheddar, chips, clams, coin, dead presidents, dough, duckets, flow, loot, moola, paper, rice, scratch, smackers. The motivation behind most of the items is more or less transparent: referring to money with the help of the foodstuffs names reflects the relative value thereof during a particular historical period. “Cabbage” seems to have been chosen due to the resemblance in colour. All slang words for “money” are based on some existing vocabulary item, that it, apart from the truncated “mon”, there is hardly any slangish synonym that would twist the phonetic or graphic shape of the word “money”. In contrast, some of the slang words for “cool” do play on the phonetic and graphic shape of the word (at least the first two): kewl, coo, all that, awesome, badass, bangin’, boss, crisp, da bomb, def, dope, far out, fly, fresh, gnarly, groovy, keen, killer, mad, mint, neat, nifty, phat, pimp, rad, radical, sick, solid, sweet, tight, tubular, wicked. Unlike the slang words for “money” mentioned above, some of the “cool” counterparts are based on enantiosemy – the emergence of a positive connotation in a word that usually connotes something negative. This is the case with the cited words badass, dope, gnarly, killer, mad, sick, wicked. The rationale behind the positive meaning is that originally the application of such names was based on irony: evaluating something or a person’s activities as good or laudable, one refers to it using a negative word. It could be explained psychologically, however: consciously or subconsciously one realizes the meanness of some thing and acknowledges it linguistically.

One of the remarkable features of contemporary slang is that, for some reason, one particular word-building pattern (which is best referred to as “word-creative”) that is extensively made use of in slang is blending (or contamination). R. Cullen asserts that, “some of today’s most inventive neologisms, or new words, have been formed by combining two existing words. These blends, also called “portmanteaux”, include the prefix of one word and the suffix of another. The resulting term incorporates the definitions of both original words, often in clever or amusing ways…The more we talk and text our conversations, the more we seek to distinguish and express ourselves with unique and creative vocabulary. When we do, it’s only a matter of seconds before an interesting new coinage makes its way around the world” [Cullen, 2007:37]. Some of the recent slangish portmanteaux are “definotly” (definitely + not: most definitely not), “flabdomen” (flab + abdomen: a flabby midsection), “irritainment” (irritate + entertainment: the annoying and degrading reality-based entertainment and media spectacles one finds impossible to resist), “mancation” (man + vacation: a men’s-only vacation; typically a weekend jaunt during which men bond and relax during rounds of golf, steak dinners, and plenty of beer), resolutionary (resolution + revolutionary: a person who makes a New Year’s resolution to join a gym and then quits after a few months), ringxiety (ring + anxiety: the panic and fear induces by one ringing cell phone in a crowd, causing everyone to scramble for their phone lest they miss a call). “The Little Hiptionary” by R. Cullen (2007) contains 61 blends out of 300 slang words, which is approximately 20 %. The number is suggestive of the popularity of blending as a word-building pattern. There are a number of reasons underlying this popularity, some of them are purely pragmatic, others – psychological, still others are supposedly down to some peculiarities of referents that are designated with the help of blending. From pragmatic vantage point, condensed or compressed information tends to attract more attention and be more memorable. Second, since slang words reflect the distorted picture of the referent, which still bears resemblance to it, it is only convenient to use a model that admits of creating a paronymic lexeme – a derivative word resembling a dictionary unit and containing graphic, phonetic, morphemic and graphemic deformations simultaneously, one deformity entailing another. Due to technological progress and constant inflow of information as well as globalization, new objects develop that are characterized by a complex, previously incompatible properties. The blend “camcorder”, for instance, is just such an example. Although a slang word, by definition, can never be a term, it does not preclude it from lending a dictionary item some additional characteristics that vary on the scale of objectivity, never actually reaching complete objectivity and veering between mildly subjective to highly idiosyncratic. This is small wonder, because slang tends to disregard the usual order of things and sometimes, at least verbally, to distort objects and phenomena, evaluating them either as negligible and despicable or elevating the despicable and the negligible. According to “The Little Hiptionary”, the spheres that tend to be a draw for blended slang words are “negative feelings about something”, “poor or unusual quality of some object”.

Another specific feature of modern slang is that converted proper names are used as common nouns, mostly with some negative evaluative connotations: How dare you to Lewinsky your way up the corporate ladder! Her skirt is so short you can practically see her Britney. Rumour has it that guy OJ’d his wife! [Cullen, 2007:35]. As can be seen from the cited examples, most of the proper names that have changed their referential status have a notorious or shameful background and more often than not are associated with pop-culture. Some of them are used as part of a blend: “Stay away from that girl. She’s a total Paris-ite” [Cullen, 2007:34]. Here the dubious celebrity P. Hilton is compared to a parasite.

Sports, forming an integral part of British and American culture, also serves as an ample source of slang words: “Sports slang, and particularly words and expressions from the game of baseball, is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we may not realize the extent to which it peppers our everyday language. We step up to the plate, pitch ideas, drop the ball, and play hardball – all without setting foot on a field” [Cullen, 2007:114]. Some examples illuminated by “The Little Hiptionary” are: 1. nutmeg (v.) in soccer, to kick the ball between the defender’s legs, run around him, and continue dribbling the ball down the field Kent was mortified when Michael nutmegged him in the first half. 2. Zebra (n.) a referee wearing a black and white striped uniform “Send this zebra back to the zoo!” the hockey fans jeered. 3. Can of corn (n.) in baseball, an easy-to-catch fly ball “C’mon, Mayes!” the coach yelled from the dugout. “How could you miss that can of corn?” 4. Juice (n.) steroids Three months after starting his juice regimen, Tyrone’s muscle mass noticeably increased. [Cullen, 2007:117, 119, 123]. Sports slang gave rise to a couple dozen words with the meaning of “to beat” or “to win”: bash, beat, belt, blaze, blister, clip, clock, cork, drill, hammer, house, juice, lace, laser beam, lash, nail, own, paste, pepper, plank, pole, pound, powder, pown, pummel, ram, rap, rip, scald, school, scorch, shellack, slap, slug, smack, smash, smoke, spank, sting, stroke, whack, whang, whip. Some of the expressions referred to as sports slang could be regarded as idioms that have become part and parcel of everyday parlance, in fact they could be regarded as sports terms that have developed an idiomatic meaning (for more detailed information see E.A. Nikulina, 2005): Caroline sent out party invitations in an attempt to get the ball rolling. Let’s try to get to first base by scheduling a meeting. How will we ever level the playing field? The most popular spheres which seem to have subjective gaps to be filled are subculture, business, technology, on-line slang, sports slang (according to “The Little Hiptionary”).

Our research into the percentage contribution of different word-building patterns as well as semantic processes that participate in the formation of slang items, based on “The Little Hiptionary”, revealed the following statistics[1]:

Semantic readjustment – 86

Blending – 64

Idioms – 37

Composition – 35

Conversion – 25

Derivation – 15

Graphic distortion – 13

Onomatopoeia – 6

Shortening – 3

Reduplication – 4

Lexicalization of a prefix – 2 (e.g. Mc-, -ish)

Incorrect derivation – 1 (orientate)

Acronyms – 1 (RIF: reduction in force)

The given figures demonstrate that semantic readjustment (1), blending (2), the evolution of an idiomatic meaning of a word-combination or a phrase (3) and composition (4) are the most wide-spread means of forming slang items. It must be noted that the resultant slang is not necessarily comprised of words, but may also include idiomatic phrases.


[1] Some of the cases were left out as they did not lend themselves to easy categorisation

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Novel Lexemes in English: Variations, Sources, Stylistic Description
Moscow State Pedagogical University
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blending, portmanteau, contamination, slang, rhyming forms, semi-affix
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Natalie Lavrova (Author), 2010, Novel Lexemes in English: Variations, Sources, Stylistic Description, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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