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Paul McFedries is a neologist, a linguist's answer to Indiana Jones. He digs through the cultural strata, classifying new words in our evolving lingo. McFedries, 44, has devoted nine years to the hunt, and his new book, Word Spy (Broadway Books, 2004) is the result. Fast Company dusted off its best thesaurus and got McFedries's take on "Y2OK," "boomeritis," and Google-as-verb.
Fast Company: How do you hunt new words? Do you just search databases?
McFedries: Well, I read a lot. Books, magazines, newspapers. Or sometimes I'll just think of a word and wonder if anybody has come up with it. Right after Y2K, when nothing bad happened, I thought Y2OK would be an interesting phrase. So I did a search on LexisNexis, and sure enough, people had used it. Making up a new word—anybody can do it. I see it as the most democratic of creative acts.
FC: What's the outlook for language in 2004?
McFedries: It's always hard to predict, and that's part of the fun. Though I think one of the driving forces is what the baby boom does. We're getting to the point now where the oldest boomers are 56 this year. So we've had recent words such as boomeritis, which is injuries caused by an aging body doing things it could do in its youth that it can't do anymore. You'll probably see more words [about "downshifting"] because more people are realizing that working 80 hours a week to get whatever you think you might need in life is not really the recipe for happiness.
FC: Is there an all-time most popular word on your Word Spy Web site?
McFedries: "Metrosexual" is number one. Second is "flash mob." And third is Google as a verb. It's one of the most interesting words I've come across. Someone told me that he told his daughter to hurry up and get ready to leave, and she said, "Hang on, I'm googling my other sock." It's become this all-purpose synonym for searching, not just searching on the Web.
FC: It's a dream come true for marketing . . . to be synonymous with the very act that people are using it for.
McFedries: Well, yeah, but they're really litigious when it comes to people using it. "Google" has been on the site since April 2001, and last spring, the company contacted me and said Google is a trademark and that they didn't like me using it. So I sent a note to the American Dialect Society. A bunch of people responded, and they all said the same thing: You can't trademark a verb.
FC: Here's something that needs a word: You get spam in your inbox, and the subject line is disguised to keep you from filtering it out. How about a McFedries original?
McFedries: Spamouflage. Camouflaging the spam.
FC: I just googled "spamouflage" and got 106 listings. . . .
McFedries: There you go. That's something I call "self-coinage"—a phenomenon where you make up a word and find out later that it already exists.
Recent entries at Paul McFedries's Web site (www.wordspy.com)
marzipan layer (MAR-zi-pan la-er) n. In a business or professional firm, the level of managers and senior staff just below the top level of directors or partners.
neuromarketing (new-roh-MAR-kuh-ting) n. The neurological study of a one's mental state and reactions when exposed to marketing messages.
bluejacking (BLOO-jak-ing) pp. Temporarily hijacking another person's cell phone by sending it an anonymous text message using the Bluetooth wireless networking system.
warm-chair attrition (warm-chair uh-TRISH-un) n. The loss of workplace productivity due to employees who dislike their jobs and are just waiting for the right time to quit and move on to something better.
cuddletech (KUD-ul-tek) n. Technology—such as the new Volkswagen or the iMac computer—that is marketed as cute, friendly, or just plain cuddly.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.