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protologism

noun [countable]

a new word or phrase invented in the hope that it will become generally used

'Protologism is a unique word, not only because it is new, but because it is probably the only word that for a limited time is an example of itself …'

Ideation [blog] 30th October 2008

Question: when is a 'new word' not a neologism? Answer: when it's a protologism.

a protologism is unlikely to make the leap to neologism status unless society connects with the word or identifies a genuine need for it

Though protologism is a term we're unlikely to come across on a daily basis, any self-respecting column about neologisms couldn't miss out on the opportunity to discuss a new word which means, ahem, 'new word'.

The term protologism describes a word which has been coined in the 'hope' that it will become accepted into usage. In other words, it's an invention, a bit of linguistic creativity which has not yet made it into general public consciousness but aspires to gradually squeeze its way into general usage through attempts to, quite literally, 'spread the word'.

As the fact that I'm writing this article, and you're later reading it, proves, there's a good deal of evidence to suggest that people enjoy discovering new words and are often interested in where they sprang from. This even leads the more creative among us to start inventing new expressions – as testified by word submission platforms like Macmillan's own crowd-sourced Open Dictionary, which, although intended to collect attested examples, sometimes receives one-off coinages from users who believe they've identified a lexical gap. Such submissions are classic examples of protologisms. The crucial difference between protologisms and neologisms however, is that the latter have actually been used somewhere, whereas the former are suggestions of what might be used.

The concept behind a protologism is humorously illustrated by the work of British comedian Alex Horne, who in 2008 created a 'Wordwatching' act involving the invention of new words such as paddle (a synonym for 'hand') and honk (slang for 'cash'). Horne described his invented words as linguistic 'seeds', and attempted to propagate them by 'planting' them in the media. Needless to say his efforts were largely unsuccessful, and, though amusing, turned out to be an illustration of the fundamental truth that a protologism is unlikely to make the leap to neologism status unless society connects with the word or identifies a genuine need for it. Even though we live in the Internet era and there's never been an easier way to get those protologisms out there, there's no guarantee that simple exposure to these creations will be effective in getting them used, as discovered by British inventor Sir James Dyson when he fruitlessly attempted to promote a verb dyson (by analogy with hoover) in the early 2000s.

Background – protologism

The word protologism was coined in 2005 by Mikhail Epstein, a Russian professor now based at Durham University in the UK. The term is based on a combination of the Greek protos, meaning 'first' (as in prototype) and logos, meaning 'word' (compare neologism = Greek neo, 'new' + logos).

Though protologism may rightly be considered a niche word, only of interest to linguists and word enthusiasts, one curious thing about it is that, at the time of writing, it's an example of itself. In other words, the term protologism is a protologism. This phenomenon, where a word itself possesses the property it refers to, is technically described as being autological. Familiar examples of autological words include noun (which is itself a noun) and polysyllabic (which is polysyllabic). Unlike these examples, however, protologism may not remain autological for long, the very existence of this article contributing to the process of it becoming more widely recognized and therefore no longer a protologism!

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 28th October 2014.

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