“That Doesn’t Need to Be a Word” Is an Incredibly Boring Hill to Die on

a diagram featuring dozens of different types of snail shells
Image by Biodiversity Heritage Lab / CC BY

Someone: Wow, here’s a cool new term.

Some Cranky Person: Oh c’mon now, that doesn’t need to be a word.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed learning new words. While other kids groaned at the thought of vocab assignments, I was excited about them.

When I was young, new words were very powerful since they afforded me new ways to organize my thoughts and a greater range of expression. Richer opportunities to connect with other people in my life: The power to connect with adults or other children. With my future self, when I began to keep a diary. And later, with possible readers, when I started writing stories.

Even synonyms were exciting. It was rare that I learned a synonym when I was younger, but as the years went on, this became much more common. A person didn’t just have to be happy. They could be cheerful, merry, joyful, jovial, jocular, gleeful, pleased, contented, blithe, sunny, radiant, and more.

Any number of shades existed in that one color, happy. Each with very similar denotations (literal meaning of the word) but often different connotations (emotional or mental secondary meanings that accompany the literal one). And certainly different phonetics, as the sound of each word was different. Which was important since they could make different music, depending on which ones you chose.

Each synonym existed in that same general realm but meant something ever so slightly different.

As I was learning I never stopped to ask myself, were all these words strictly necessary?

Because it never occurred to me to ask that question. Linguistically, I was enjoying a wealth of riches — why would I argue for paucity? For scarcity?

There was plenty of room to learn new words. The human brain functions that way. I didn’t have to clean it out like a closet that I frown at and ask myself, “Do you really need that many red shirts?”

Crimson. Scarlet. Vermilion. Ruby. Carmine. Cherry. Cerise. You know, red shirts.

A Lot of Very Commonly Used Words Are Actually Quite New

I am still in love with learning new words. And so it’s a nice side effect that my current job puts me frequently in contact with them. Especially in the realm of love, sex, and dating, there are a lot of neologisms.

And even some very commonly used ones are a lot newer than most people realize. For example, “ghosting” is a pretty ubiquitous term these days, one which describes the act of breaking off a relationship by spontaneously ceasing all contact and communication without warning someone or explaining it to them first. As with most neologisms, its precise origin is unclear. But it does seem to be quite a new word. It can only be traced back to about 2011 or so (which sounds on par with when I first started hearing it).

There are definitely other ways to say “ghosting.” I was, after all, able to define it with a a short description made up of other words. And I’ve heard similar behavior described as “freezing me out” or “dropping off the face off the earth.” One could easily describe ghosting behavior as “stonewalling,” which means something pretty close: “refusing to communicate or cooperate.”

They’re pretty similar in denotation, in the literal meanings of the words. Connotatively, however, ghosting has come to signify that the contact completely ends forever. Whereas in stonewalling, the refusal is more often temporary and typically being done to delay until enough time has passed (for whatever reason) or the stonewalling party gets what they want.

Additionally, ghosting tends to be limited to the more personal realm of human relationships — most commonly romantic relationships, although ghosting is also sometimes used to describe the actions of friends or family members.

Conversely, stonewalling has a more professional connotation and is a term used more often in formal negotiations.

To most people, these look like entirely different words… but are they? Just like some people would cry, “Those shirts are the same color! They’re both red!” and someone else might say, “No, they’re not. That one’s scarlet, and this one is definitely more burgundy.”

I Frequently Share or Use Interesting New Words When I Encounter Them

Anyway, as a logophile (word lover) and particularly as a neologophile (that is, a lover of new words or neologisms), when I encounter newly coined words, I get really excited.  I’ll often write about them in my essays. And when I see a write-up by someone else about an interesting new term I’ve never seen before (especially one that’s funny, handy, or  particularly beautiful sounding, or euphonious), I’ll frequently share those articles to Poly Land’s Facebook or Twitter. Just saying, “Hey, here’s an interesting word. Thought you might enjoy this.”

Due to what I tend to write about, these neologisms are usually either new labels for relationship or dating behaviors, sociological concepts, or personal identity designations.

And reliably, whether I’m writing a piece myself or if I’ve simply shared someone else’s work, I’ll receive a genre of comment that without fail makes me involuntarily roll my eyes:

  • Does this have to be a word?
  • Is this new word necessary?
  • Why do people have to keep making up new words?
  • It saddens me that people feel the need to make up all these unnecessary labels. 

It’s always puzzled me — what exactly is going on here, the mindset of the person who complains about the coinage of new words. Who insists we don’t need them.

“That Doesn’t Need to Be a Word” Is Oddly Anti-Synonym

If I were to be particularly un-generous, I might claim that the person in question is categorically wrong to say that these words are unnecessary. That the word is a new one because it reflects societal changes that haven’t been adequately described in the past. That the word is in fact necessary. The person objecting to its formation is actually incorrect, and their assertion likely has more to do with the fact that they’re generally opposed to change, particularly social change. And that they’re essentially someone who fights for the status quo.

I’ve seen many people take this particular position. And I can see why. But while this is a tempting explanation, it’s possibly a bit reductive.

Let’s instead take a generous stance and say that the anti-neologists are factually correct. That technically speaking, “that doesn’t need to be a word” is true. Let’s assume all of these new words describe concepts that there are already words or phrases for (which is a generous concession, as some concepts I’ve seen recent neologisms for take approximately a paragraph to otherwise accurately explain).

Let’s say that every single word that’s being birthed in our modern times is a synonym, not strictly necessary. That there already exist a thousand other ways to say this thing.

Even given that concession, it doesn’t actually mean that the word shouldn’t exist. Our language is full of words that are technically redundant at a basic level. You know, synonyms.

Maybe you don’t want to use that new word. You don’t see its utility or its purpose in your own speech. Fine. No one is forcing you to use that new word. You don’t have to personally use it. But it’s odd to object to other people’s extracurricular use of language.

Now, I suppose if other people like that new word, sure, they might start using it, so if you want to understand people, you might have to learn or retain the meaning of that word later, down the line. But you know, if you’re the average adult, you’re capable of learning tens of thousands of words. You’ll be fine. You had to learn words in the past, and you did that no problem. There’s plenty of room in there, in your brain’s language centers.

And besides, it’s never been easier to look up the meanings of ones that are unfamiliar or fuzzy with the Internet so accessible (an awful lot of people own smart phones or computers, and those who don’t either know someone who does and/or typically have access to public computer access such as at library).

Communication Would Be So Boring Without Synonyms

It’s a shockingly common stance, being anti-synonym. And when you strip it bare of social bias (which is not admitted to most of the time even in cases where it’s glaringly present), it’s an odd stance to be so passionate and persistent about. And frankly, pretty boring of a hill to die on.

Because how bland the world would be without synonyms — without different ways to express ourselves. Easy ways to add connotation and depth to our communication with other people.

Anyway, good luck singlehandedly trying to act as the unappointed, unelected head of the Department of Word Approval. Or trying to impede humanity’s natural tendency toward linguistic experimentation.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. Maybe it’s just the circles I move in, but in my experience, people saying “that doesn’t need to be a word” often mean “that’s not a real thing, you’re making it up”. they’re opposed to the existence of a thing, and therefore, refuse to “allow” it to be labeled, categorized, and studied, fo fear it might be understood and accepted.

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