September 9, 2010

Celebrate New Words Today

  • On this day in 1839, John Herschel made the first glass-plate photographic negative. This early photographer actually invented the word photograph. Herschel also came up with the terms negative (in the photographic sense) and snap-shot.

You may already know that Herschel combined two Greek roots to coin the word photograph: photo means “light,” and graph means “write.”

  • On this day in 1947, early computer whiz Grace Hopper was having trouble with her mainframe computer. She opened it up and found a dead moth that had shorted out a relay. She used tweezers to remove the moth and was able to fix the computer.

Apparently, people had already used the word “bug” when describing computer problems, so Hopper wrote in her logbook, “First actual case of bug being found.” She even taped the moth into the book for proof! Loads of people talked about Hopper debugging her computer—and so the word debug became popular.
By the way, apparently the moth is on display in the Smithsonian museum!

It's interesting to learn how words come to be. English is made up of an awful lot of words from other languages—especially French, Latin, and Greek. Putting existing words (in any language) together to make a new word, like photograph or snap-shot, is one common way that new words are coined, and repurposing old words in a new way, like negative or debug, is another common method of creating new terms. Two more methods are shortening a word or adopting an acronym (when the first letters of each word are put together and pronounced as if they were a word, such as NASA). And of course, some words are simply made up purely out of thin air. 

See if you can identify these various methods with each of these words:

  1. snafu (which means a BIG mistake or mess)
  1. television
  1. fax machine
  1. laser
  1. grok (which means to deeply and intuitively understand something or someone)
  1. web (as in the internet)
  1. airport

ANSWERS: 1) snafu is an acronym meaning Situation Normal—All Fouled Up – 2) television is a combination of the root tele, meaning “far” and vision, meaning “sight” - 3) fax is short for facsimile, which means exact copy – 4) laser is an acronym meaning Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation – 5) grok is a word made up by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein – 6) web is an old word (referring of course to a spider's construction) that has been used for a new purpose—the World Wide Web – 7) airport is a combination of the words air and port

Just for Fun...

Read the book Frindle, by Andrew Clements. It's about a boy who makes up a new word that manages to actually catch on.

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