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:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/i-apologize-for-inventing-the-word-fashionista-20-years-ago/275048/

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:

fashionista

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!

 

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About uclinguistics

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