Hello! In my first post on this blog, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote for a college course. It seems like an especially appropriate introduction to this blog and the type of information I hope to impart through it.
The topic was how the children’s book Frindle illustrates the process of language evolution, particularly the creation of a word, as rare as it is. Words change meaning all the time, but seldom are new words invented entirely out of thin air. However, Frindle manages to use this premise to very simply portray how a word enters Common Usage and eventually the dictionary.
the creation of a word
What makes frindle unusual in the history of how words are created is that it wasn’t created by the usual methods. There are many ways that new words are created, including combining, shortening, blending, shifting, reduplication, and several categories within each of these. Most new words can be put into one of these categories. However, a few of them are created simply…out of thin air. They aren’t logically based on other words, and might not have a logical connection to their meanings at all. If you looked at a word—the signifier—and at the object (or idea, etc.) it represents—the signified—then you would not be able to see a connection. This is true of most words, but because most words are created with a logical reason or purpose, it is useful to try to discover why words may be created without either. However, words like frindle, popularised by Andrew Clements’ children’s book Frindle, don’t seem to have any basis at all. Nick, the protagonist, simply thinks of a random word to use instead of pen, and thus frindle is born. It would have been different if he had picked a word already in existence (or rather, in popular usage) and chosen to reassign it to the signified pen. That might fit into one of the above categories. But frindle is a completely new word.
The book focuses mainly on the social aspect of the word’s creation. For any word to make it into the dictionary, as frindle does in this fictional universe, it must first become incredibly popular. Nick achieves this by first using it in front of his classmates and encouraging them to do the same. Then the news gets hold of the story and it spreads throughout the town, and even other towns. An entrepreneur decides to make money selling products branded with the word frindle and eventually people all across the country are using the word. The spread of new words these days is greatly facilitated by the media, especially social media. This is mainly how slang is spread, and some slang does stick around long enough to make it into the dictionary.
The central conflict of the book is another large part of the creation of words. There is controversy surrounding the use of frindle, and the opposition is organised by Mrs. Granger, Nick’s teacher and the one who gave him the idea to create a word in the first place. She thinks there is no reason to replace the perfectly good pen, especially because it has a long history and comes from Latin. A few adults side with her either because they share her opinion or they respect her outstanding reputation at the school and in the community. But most if not all of the children enjoy using frindle and continue to spread its use. This is often the case when a new word or phrase is created, or even a new grammar or style rule. Adults and generally older people who have grown up with a particular set of words and rules can be resistant to change. But children who are just learning the rules tend to want to exercise their creative freedom in implementing these rules and using these words—or making up their own. It is quite impossible to stop the spread of a word, because often its popularity will increase if it is banned or avoided by some communities. It is also quite difficult to tell which new words and rules will stick and which won’t. The dictionary is constantly changing, adding and removing words according to what is currently in popular usage and what isn’t. Style guides (for writing) change their rules quite frequently. One of the most popular guides, the Chicago Manual of Style, releases a new edition every four years and the changes/additions can be drastic. For instance, in the seventeenth edition, email is now spelled without a hyphen. In previous editions, it was spelled e-mail. Due to the ubiquity of today’s technology, it is no longer necessary to segregate such technological prefixes from words. Changes in language and usage will surely go on as long as language is used—which is to say, as long as there are creatures around to use it.
While Frindle does not feature a word created in a way that most words are, it still provides an accurate representation of how a word becomes integrated into popular usage and eventually the dictionary.
I hope you found this essay interesting, informative even—and you may be inspired to learn more about how specific words came into being. Happy research!