When does a word start?

This is a post in the Language in the news series. See more.

When does a word start? How can we know when a new word ‘takes off’ and starts to be used by lots of people?

I spotted this story in the news recently: “I apologize for inventing the word ‘fashionista’ 20 years ago”

See here:


The top of the article reads: ‘In 1993, an unsuspecting Gia Carangi biographer made up a word to collectively refer to the many tiny factions within the 1970s fashion industry. Today, it’s everywhere.’

Has ‘fashionista’ really increased? Is it ‘everywhere’? How do we know?

Google has a nice way of tracking word usage overtime, called Google Ngrams. It’s free, and very easy to use, so anyone can have a play around to see how words have increased or decreased in frequency.

See here: http://books.google.com/ngrams/

And to read more about how it works, how to interpret the graphs, and how to e.g. search across different collections (US English vs UK English, for example), see here: http://books.google.com/ngrams/info.

When you search for ‘fashionista’ from 1980 onwards, and look at US English and UK English separately, you get the following results:


If the image isn’t clear enough, see here

You can see that there is an increase over the last few years, and that there is a greater increase in US English (blue) than in UK English (red). If the original word was coined in 1993, you can see that it took a while to ‘catch on’ and be taken up elsewhere. This graph is a little misleading in that respect, as Ngrams are only included in the dataset when they occur in 40 books or more.

Nevertheless, Google Ngrams are a useful way of understanding recent changes in word usage (and also not so recent ones – you can go back many years!).

It’s a nice tool to play around with, and you’ll learn stuff about language change, too!


About uclinguistics

Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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