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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 his take on “Y2OK,” “boomeritis,” and Google-as-verb. This is an expanded interview offered as a Web Extra to the original print article.
Fast Company: You got a BA in math, spent the ’80s in a cubicle, and now you’ve got 40 books… what got you into writing?
Paul McFedries: I was the sales manager for this division of computer books, and I had to write a little manual for the sales reps to use. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was fun to take a reasonably complex series of steps or operations and reduce them to something simple that anybody could understand. That was back in 1990, and I just started writing full time.
FC: Have you always had a passion for words?
McFedries: Oh, I always liked language. I remember in high school being a little conspicuous because of it. It’s the William F. Buckley syndrome–if you use words that people don’t understand, they look at you funny. It does tell you a lot about society–the language is growing, but it’s also shrinking; everyone’s using the lowest common denominator. It’s a language that’s got almost 1 million words and most people use an average of 10 or 15 thousand.
FC: How do you hunt new words? Do you just search databases?
McFedries: Well, I read a lot. Books, magazines, newspapers. Anywhere from 2-6 hours a day. I could spend a whole day doing it if there’s nothing else on the go. I’ve trained myself to look for new words. Or sometimes I’ll just think of a word and wonder if anybody has come up with it. For example, right after Y2K, when nothing much bad happened, I thought “Y2OK” would be an interesting phrase. So I did a search on LexisNexis, and sure enough, people had used it. You know, I think I found 3-4 different uses for it, so I put that one on the site. Making up a new word–anybody can do it. I see it as the most democratic of creative acts.
FC: What are some unusual places you might search, places you find yourself that you might never have suspected?
McFedries: I don’t have any unusual places that are regular haunts; it’s more wherever the links go. When you do a search, you find yourself in unusual places. You have to have a kind of mindless patience. You end up in some strange little corners that you never knew existed. Generally, new words tend to come from the media, big and small, even if it’s just an obscure zine. They’re out there–they’re in some sort of distributable medium like an e-zine, or a newsletter, or some sort of press release even. I think you’re seeing now a lot of terms are coming up in chat rooms and IM sites and newsgroups… message boards. More often than not, it’s not recorded, especially if it’s an IM conversation or a voice conversation. The birth of most words isn’t set in stone or electrons.
FC: Is there a word for a writer or journalist who is always pumping out new words?
McFedries: I don’t think there is a word for someone who does that because it’s so rare. It’s just really, really hard to come up with a new word that people accept and use. Shakespeare is attributed to have created 1,200-1,500 words; it’s just incredible. The next best person might have 10. There’s a story in my book about the guy who created this word “Frankenfood”–Paul Lewis–and with the media frenzy that accompanied that, he had his 15 minutes. But I guess he wanted another 15 minutes. So he just kept trying to come up with these new words and was striking out every time. They just didn’t click.
FC: With so many new words or new terms, are there an equal number or old words and terms flowing out of the language?
McFedries: It’s hard. You can’t pin down the death of a word. Sometimes words will go away for a while and come back. I know the most recent addition of Merriam-Websters had something like 10,000 new words–so they can’t keep getting bigger, they have their own page-count restrictions.
FC: Do you see words springing from media events? Do they ride the news?
McFedries: In a big event you will see new language because you always need new language to describe new things. A good example was Enron, which generated tons of new words: Enron as a verb, Enronista, En-ron-around, tons of new words. Another one that threw up lots of new words was the second Gulf war. Most of those were just military speak–military jargon–that people just let go unless they could find some way of incorporating it into a broader context. But how do you really use “decapitation strike” in a broader context? But you would see things like a “target-rich environment”–so you can see how that might be used in business.
FC: “Post-crash realism” is a phrase in your book. Is that where language is now?
McFedries: New words are so broad based that you can’t put them under one umbrella. In terms of the dotcom world, you’re certainly not seeing the hyped-up language. The tech sector has always been one of the big generators of new words, and that hasn’t slowed down, even though the whole sector itself in the doldrums. What you’re seeing less of is the real jargony speech of the press releases–there seems to be a bit of a backlash against stuff like that. One of the consulting firms put out a bullshit meter–a little software application that you run over your memo and it would flag all the meaningless buzzwords like “paradigm shift.” The words you’re seeing now coming from that sector are focusing more and more on the technology–and I think a big part of the tech language is on security and viruses and hackers and privacy. Spam is an example. People are getting very concerned about it, so you’re starting to see lots of words come out. I just came across Spam Rage this morning.
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 in the culture in general and therefore in the language in particular, is what the baby boom does. We’re getting to the point now where the oldest boomers are 56 this year. They’re getting older, and they’re getting into retirement age. 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 “flashmob.” And third is Google as a verb. It’s one of the most interesting words I’ve come across in the past eight years. 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 basically all said the same thing: you can’t trademark a verb. My definition is for the verb. The definition is still there, but in my notes I say that Google as a noun is a trademark of Google Inc. It is obviously great in a marketing sense, but they are concerned about it as a trademark holder. Some trademarks have been deemed generic now. There are certain ones that the courts have decided are generic–that have lost their trademark. That is one of the reasons why so many companies are vigilant about their brands.
FC: Jeez. You make a word, it’s a huge success, and you lose control of your own invention.
McFedries: A lot of words we use today are like that. Zipper was once a trademarked term. Aspirin. Escalator. Yo-yo. Linoleum. That’s called “genericide,” by the way, if you lose your trademark.
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. More than half of all the email traffic now is 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.
FC: Here’s another. How about a word for when a company guards its products to the detriment of the company? Like Apple not licensing its software back in the ’80s, or, say, Google stamping out certain uses of its trademark?
McFedries: Such products are traditionally described as proprietary, but when maintaining this status works against the company, then I guess we could describe them as “antiprietary.”
FC: You quote Bob Dylan in your book. “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and does what he wants to do.” Does that describe you?
McFedries: You better believe it. I had to pinch myself a lot of times when I was working on the book because this is what I was doing all day–working on words, writing about words, and thinking about words. I couldn’t imagine doing anything better than that.