Word Creators · 25 April 2015

Nokota Horses by François Marchal
licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
(The picture will make sense at the end.)

Who comes up with words anyway?

I was writing a piece a while back and used the word “penultimate” incorrectly. I thought it meant “more than ultimate” or “ultimate-est.” I knew I should look it up before I submitted the piece to the newspaper, but I forgot or got in a hurry or some such excuse. (As we all know, any excuse will do.) At any rate, I sent it in and looked up the word the next day.

Apparently, I was wrong.

If the internet and several dictionaries are correct, “penultimate” means next to last. Not the final, but the one before the final. Certainly, not “ultimate-est.”

I could not believe it. Then again, I could. I am sure I have looked up the word before. I am sure I have tried to use it incorrectly before. Still, it was a bit embarrassing that I sent in the piece before I looked it up.

Good thing I sent it to an editor.

Even so, the word got me to thinking. Who makes up words anyway? Think about it. There are many words in the English language that make no sense at all. (I cannot think of any off the top of my head, but there must be a bunch besides “penultimate.”) So who comes up with these words?

Most of the time, we blame the Greeks and Romans. Or the Germans. After all, many of our words have Greek, Latin, or German roots. Sometimes we just steal words like über. (The word means over or above in German, but we tend to use it like super. Probably because it sounds like super.) But those word roots are important. We can certainly understand English better when we know that roots of words, prefixes of words, and suffixes of words come from other languages. It makes so much sense that in order to understand English, we need to understand Greek, Latin, and just about every other language out there. (Would sure love a sarcastic font for that last sentence.)

Another question I have is why Greeks speak Greek and Germans speak German, but Romans speak (or at least spoke) Latin? Why is it that they did not speak Roman?

But I digress. (Then again, this whole thing is a digression.)

I know I am not the only one who wished English made more sense. I am just glad that I am a native speaker rather than learning it as a second (or third) language. After all, it is much easier to understand a language that does not make sense when you have been speaking it all your life rather than trying to make sense of a nonsensical language when it is foreign to you. Sure, there are idioms and phrases in every language that do not translate well, but it seems that everything anybody says in English is an idiom. (And regional idioms do not always translate very well even in English.)

So to all those people out there making up new English words and to those folks in our history who made up English in the first place, I wish you would make more sense. I wish you would stick to rules without so many exceptions. (“I” before “E” except after “C” or when pronounced as an “A” as in neighbor and weigh. And a whole bunch of other exceptions that do not have rhymes.) I wish you would have real reasons for how those words were formed. I wish I knew Greek, Latin, and German. And I wish that I could use “penultimate” correctly in a sentence. Just once.

My dad always used to tell us, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” That may be true, but even so, I can at least make one wish come true. This sentence is the penultimate sentence of this piece. See, here is the last sentence.

(Oops, I forgot to sum things up. I guess I cannot make wishes come true after all. No wonder I never got a horse.) After all this rambling, I am still left with the question: “Who makes up words anyway?”

© 2015 Michael T. Miyoshi

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