How do new words develop?

Languages are always evolving and changing as people share their ideas and travel around. During last year’s EDL, we learned about the tradition of welcoming new words by selecting a “word of the year.” This year, we are delving deeper into how new words appear and how they end up in dictionaries. Get ready to dive into the world of language inventors!

First things first – we are all inventors of language(s)!

Much like how Grace Hopper invented the computer code COBOL, we can all be inventors of language, whether it's through using a new form of emoji, a gesture in sign language, or a new word in spoken language. This innovative process occurs when our existing vocabulary leaves gaps in what we wish to express, most likely when we are faced with ideas, concepts, and situations that are not clearly defined in our minds. Oftentimes, we then borrow from other languages, make up completely new words, or adapt already existing ones to capture what we wish to express.

For instance, in the English language, the most common method of creating a new word is by adding a prefix or a suffix to an existing word. Such is the case with words like 'unbelievable,' 'misunderstood,' and 'discomfort.' You could think of it like playing Tetris where you must match shapes of blocks that fit together. Another way of going about it is to combine the sound and meaning of two already existing words, the so-called 'portmanteau words,' such as 'ginormous' (gigantic + enormous). In other cases, new words originate when humans imitate a naturally occurring sound in nature – which explains why animal sounds differ between languages.

According to a popular legend, Grace Hopper coined the term 'bug' to express what was happening when her computers were not functioning properly. This exemplifies well how new words appare to accommodate for innovations in the tech industry.

Some words stay for centuries and others die off. But the journey these words take and how they enter our speech say quite a lot about the time and place we live in and how we communicate within it. In fact, there is a whole field of scientific research dedicated to the origin and shifting meanings of words across time – Etymology. For instance, did you knwo that the word 'meme' comes fron the ancient Greek verb "mimeisthai", meaning 'to imitate'.  Click here to read more about this and many other etymological fun facts! 

What determines whether a new word becomes a buzz or a bum?

The very word 'communicate' in English suggests ('com' from Latin 'com,' meaning 'with, together') that this is a social process. For a word to gain popularity, it must be intelligible, applicable, and useful for many speakers. These are also criteria considered when new words are included in official dictionaries or when old words are redefined.

When engineers create new gadgets, they often patent them to claim ownership. Similarly, when new words gain popularity, national language institutes and academies step in to decide whether they should be included in official dictionaries. At this stage, linguists and lexicographers investigate how a specific word is being used (meaning), in what contexts (spread), and for how long it has been around (sustainability). They also take into consideration whether the word reflects something important happening in society at large.

This is likely how portmanteau words like 'Ecoanxiété' ('eco' + 'anxiety') made its way into the French dictionary and 'dödsdoula' ('death' + 'doula') into the Swedish one.

But here is the big catch that sets words apart from other gadgets...

"Patenting" a word into an official dictionary does not disqualify anyone from making using that word. In this sense languages are more democratic than gadgets – anyone can learn them, is free to use them, and can develop them further.

Now it's your turn....

Create a word collage poster

To participate in this initiative, we're calling upon your creative skills! We invite you to craft a word collage using magazine cutouts, drawings, or digital images to come up with new words.


  • The collage can be in your mother tongue or a language you're learning. Please feel free to mix and match as you like.
  • Upload your poster in pdf format. Alternatively, you can upload the video to a file-sharing platform such as WeTransfer and provide us with that link.

By participating, you'll contribute to the creation of a collection that aims to capture the creative possibilities and synergies inherent in every language!

Create your own dictionary

This initiative is a class activity, demanding the participation of each and every student. The mission is to create a dictionary with words that you, as a class, believe are lacking in your shared language. Perhaps you or someone in the class has knowledge of words from other languages that could be made useful in the shared language, or vice versa.


The dictionary should include a front page and a list of words.

Front page List of words
  • Name
  • School
  • Year
  • Language: to which language does the word belong
  • Word category: Is the word a noun (person, place or animal), a verb (something you do), an adjective (a word describing a noun), or an adverb (a word describing a verb)?
  • Definition: Describe your word using other words
  • Sentence exemple: place the word into a sentence
  • Motivation: Write a short motivation as to why/how your word is useful