How New English Words are Born (Part 1)

English has to be the most dynamic language around, forever evolving and adapting to the needs of its users. Year by year a great number of words enter the language, while some others leave. The marked rate at which English has expanded in recent years is a good indication that it has managed to keep pace with changing times and technology.

Having a basic understanding of how new words are created can be handy. If you know how new words enter the language, you will be better placed to identify strategies to help you cope with new language. Let us take a closer look at some ways in which new English words are born:

1. Affixation

A letter or a group of letters, known as an affix, can be added to the beginning or end of a word to make new words that express new ideas. This method of using a prefix (affix added at the beginning) or suffix (affix added at the end) to create new words is called affixation.  

PrefixMeaningExample
micro-extremely smallmicrobe, microscope
post-afterpostgraduate, postnatal
tri-threetriangle, tricycle
re-againreconsider, rewrite
SuffixMeaningExample
-doma state of beingboredom, martyrdom
-er / -ora person whoexplorer, narrator
-ismdoctrine / beliefBuddhism, communism
-nessa state of beinggoodness, sadness

As you can see, it isn’t too difficult to work out the meaning of such words, as prefixes and suffixes are often attached to words that already have known definitions. However, prefixes don’t usually change the word class of the words they modify (e.g. cycle, tricycle → noun), whereas suffixes often change the form entirely (e.g. explore → verb, explorer → noun). 

2. Compounding

Compounding is the process of making up a fresh word by joining two or more independent words. Although compounds are found in all word classes, the most common types are nouns. Here are some examples:

NounsVerbsAdjectivesAdverbs
bus stopbabysitheartbreakingnevertheless
rock bandchain-smokesugar-freeself-consciously

When existing words are combined to form a compound, it could sometimes carry a meaning that is different to what the individual parts convey. The noun fur baby, for instance, refers to a person’s pet animal with fur, such as a cat or dog, especially when it receives the kind of love and attention that a child would receive from its parent. 

The next couple of parts in this series will introduce you to more types of word formation.

Visit the British Council’s Learn English website.

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