Brevity plus

That’s the title of an abstract of mine that was just accepted for delivery at the Stanford SemFest (#11) on March 12. And here’s the abstract. Remember that it’s just an abstract; it’s also missing references to discussions of the phenomena (though readers of this blog will recognize some of them).

Brevity plus

The innovation and spread of lexical items very often is favored by considerations of brevity: items are invented by some people and adopted by others because they are more compact than earlier expressions. (And for some reasons not having to do with formal considerations: they have the virtue of novelty, suggesting fashion, ostentatious cleverness, or playfulness; and they usually have the virtue of contextual or social specificity, via ties to specific contexts, like sports, journalism, business, radio/television, the tech world, gaming, etc., or to specific social groups, like young people, Australians, women, etc.)

But these innovations also frequently (perhaps almost always) have the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity. The innovations usually allow for shadings of meaning that are fuzzed over in the older expressions (which, typically, have radiated and generalized in their meanings over the years). This point is scarcely a new one, but it tends to be buried by usage writers and language peevers who are hostile to innovations and treat them as “unnecessary”.

Here I look mostly at category conversions in English, in particular zero conversions and subtractive conversions (back-formations), concentrating on plain nounings (a disconnect vs. a disconnection), plain verbings (to extinct vs. to make extinct, drive to extinction), simple back-formations of verbs (to incent vs. to provide an incentive), and two-part back-formations of verbs (to cheerlead vs. to serve as a cheerleader). The larger point is that people have good (if unconscious) reasons for creating and adopting such innovations.

I look at several case studies, including that of the simple nouning an ask, which has been innovated several times in several very different senses over the years.

3 Responses to “Brevity plus”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    Sound like fun!

  2. a rethink « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] That brings us to the Economist story, which uses rethink. Rethinking would have been possible, but rethink is more specific, as well as being a bit briefer (see here). […]

  3. Generalized word rage « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] In fact, innovative portmanteaus are certainly fashionable, and many of them are clearly playful, displaying linguistic ingenuity. But (like verbings, nounings, and back-formations) they also serve the end of brevity and usually have the virtue of social specificity (via ties to particular contexts) and frequently the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity as well (summary discussion here). […]

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