Volume 16, No. 2 
April 2011

  Forough Sayadi


Front Page

Select one of the previous 55 issues.

Index 1997-2011

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
One Translator's Journey
by Heidi Holzer

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
How do you Deal with Requests for Discounts?
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

Technical Translation
Specialization in Translation—myths and realities
by Charles Martin

  Translators and the Computer
An Analysis of Google Translate Accuracy
by Milam Aiken and Shilpa Balan
The New Five-Year-Rule
by Jost Zetzsche

  Translation Theory
How to Avoid Communication Breakdowns in Translation or Interpretation?
by Sahar Farrahi Avval
A Taxonomy of Human Translation Styles
by Michael Carl, Barbara Dragsted, and Arnt Lykke Jakobsen

  Language & Communication
Words of Greek Origin
by Aikaterini Spanakaki-Kapetanopoulos
Translation and Neologisms
by Forough Sayadi

  Literary Translation
'Speaking in the Feminine': Considerations for Gender-Sensitive Translation
by Kate James

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal
Language & Communication

The Translation of Neologisms

by Forough Sayadi


eologisms are perhaps the non-literary and the professional translator's biggest problem. New objects and processes are continually created in technology. New ideas and variations on feelings come from the media. Terms from the social sciences, slang, dialect coming into the mainstream of language, transferred words, make up the rest. It has been stated that each language acquire 3000 new words, annually, but in fact, neologisms can not be accurately quantified, since so many hover between acceptance and oblivion and many are short-lived, individual creations. In other words, Neologisms are new words, word-combinations or fixed phrases that appear in the language due to the development of social life, culture, science and engineering. New meanings of existing words are also accepted as neologisms. A problem of translation of new words ranks high on the list of challenges facing translators because such words are not readily found in ordinary dictionaries and even in the newest specialized dictionaries.

In 1975nthe French lexicographer and terminologist Alain Ray set up a theoretical model, suggesting that

'..., the neologism will be perceived as belonging to the language in general or only to one of its special usages; or as belonging to a subject-specific usage which may be specialized or general.' (Ray, 1975 cited in Yiokari, 2005:3)

Nowadays, there seems to be a consensus that neologism is a word that expresses a novel concept either through coining a new vocabulary item or through attaching a new meaning to an already existing one (Bolinger and Sear, 1981; Collins Cobuild English Dictionary 1995; Newmark, 1995).

Neologisms: How are new words created?

How can our finite vocabulary be expanded and altered to deal with our potentially infinite world? First, new words can be added, and the meaning of already existing words can be changed. Second, new words can enter a language through the operation of word formation rules. (The part of language study that deals with word formation rules is also called derivational morphology).

Neologisms pass through three stages: creation, trial and establishment (Parianou & Kelandrias, 2002: 756). First, the unstable neologism is still new, being proposed or being only by a limited audience; Epstein (2005) calls such a neologism protologism 'from Greek protos, first+Greek logos, word, by analogy with prototype and neologism.' Then, it is diffused, but it is not widely accepted yet. Finally, it is stabilized and identifiable, having gained wide-spread approval; such"stability" is indicated by its appearance in glossaries, dictionaries and large corpora. However, even the last stage may not be the last one.

Nikska (1998) draws on the concept of "translational creativity" to claim that

'Neologisms are tokens of a creative process, "a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other."

Such creativity is especially evident in computing where the coiners of neologisms 'are not particularly aware of following [or breaking] any word-formation rules (sic)' (Jacqueline, 2001: 35). But the data text (Appendix A) calls for consistency which is more important than creativity (Silvia, 2001). Whereas Bauer acknowledges that both 'productivity and creativity give rise to a large number of neologisms' (1983: 63) [my emphasis] he prefers the former because the unpredictable nature of the latter could not lead to worth-while generalizations. In other words, the creation of neologisms is a rule-bound process (Motsch, 1977).

Neologisms can be defined as newly coined lexical units or existing lexical units that acquire a new sense. Unless they are opaque, obscure and possibly cacophonous.

Newmark proposed 12 types of neologisms:

A) Existing lexical items with new senses:

1. Words

2. Collocations

B) New forms:

1. New coinages

2. Derived words

3. Abbreviations

4. Collocations

5. Eponyms

6. Phrasal words

7. Transferred words (new and old referents)

8. Acronyms (new and old referents)

9. Pseudo-neologisms

10. Internationalism

Old words with new senses

Existing words with new senses, these don't normally refer to new objects or processes and therefore are rarely technological. For example, a Le Petit Termophile point out that refoulement is used in English as 'return of refugee' but may also mean 'refusal of entry' 'deportation.' It is a loose term, dependent on its context. In psychology it is translated as 'repression.'

To sum up old words with new senses tend to be non-cultural and non-technical. They are usually translated either by a word that already exists in the TL, or by a brief functional or descriptive term.

Existing collocations with new senses are a translator's trap: usually these are 'normal' descriptive term which suddenly becomes technical terms, their meaning sometimes hides innocently behind a more general or figurative meaning e.g. 'token woman' (single woman representative on committee of men), 'high speed train'-TGV (train de grande vitesse). Existing collocations with new senses may be cultural or non-cultural, if the referent (concept or object) exist in the TL, there is usually a recognized translation or through-translation. If the concept does not exist (e.g, 'tug-of-love') or the TL speakers are not yet aware of it, an economical descriptive equivalent has to be given. There is also the possibility of devising a new collocation in inverted commas, which can later be slyly withdrawn.

Creating New Words and Changing the Meaning of Words

New Coinages

It is well known hypothesis that there is no such thing as a brand new word; if a word does not derive from various morphemes then it is more or less phonaesthetic or synaesthetic. All sounds or phonemes are phonaesthetic, have some kind of meaning but the best known exception to this hypothesis is the internationalism 'quark,' coined by James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake, a fundamental particle in physics. The computer term 'byte,' sometimes spelt 'bite,' is also an internationalism, the origin of the 'y' being obscure. Both these words have phonaesthetic qualities-quark is humorously related to 'quack.'

Derived words

The great majority of neologisms are words derived by analogy from ancient Greek (increasingly) and Latin morphemes usually with suffixes such as -ismo, -ismus, -ja, etc., naturalized in the appropriate language. Sawahili appears o be the main non-European language that 'imports' them.

In all derived words, you have to distinguish between terms like ecosysteme and ecotone which have a solid referential basis, and fulfill the conditions of internationalisms and those like 'ecofreak' and ecotage (sabotage of ecology) , which, whatever their future, do not at present warrant the formation of a TL neologism.


Abbreviations have always been a common type of pseudo-neologism, probably more common in French than in English. For many speakers of American English, one time abbreviations such as CD (compact disc or certificate of deposit), ER (emergency room), and PC (personal computer or politically correct), respectively, in most style of speech; through this process new, previously nonexistent words have com into use. Characteristic of these alphabetic abbreviations (or initialisms) is that each of their letters is individually pronounced (they contrast with acronyms in this respect).

Computer-inspired alphabetic abbreviations now number in the thousands. Here are some well-known (and perhaps not so well known) examples:

Abbreviations Source
www World Wide Web
IT Information Technology
HTML Hypertext Markup Language
OOP Object-Oriented Programming
HDL Hardware Description Language
I/O Input/Output
IP Internet Protocol
FTP File Transfer Protocol/ File Transfer Program

‍‍Clipped abbreviations such as prof for professor, fax for facsimile, and photo op for photographic are known in common use. There are also orthographic abbreviations such as Dr. (doctor), Mr. (mister), Az (Arizona), and MB (megabyte), where the spelling of a word has been shortened but its pronunciation is not (necessarily)altered.


New collocations (noun compounds) or (adjective plus noun) are particularly common in the social sciences and in computer language. Thus 'lead time,' a term for the time between design and production or between ordering and delivery of a product, has to be translated in context; 'cold-calling' (soliciting on the doorstep) may not last as a term, though the practice will; 'acid rain,' unfortunately a universal phenomenon, is likely to be literally translated everywhere, since it is 'transparent'; 'sunrise industries' refers to electronics and other 'high-tech' industries, and is likely to be ephemeral; therefore the metaphor can be ignored or reduced to sense; 'walkman' is a trade name (eponym) and therefore should not be transferred.

Languages that cannot convert verbs to nouns or, in the case of the Romance languages at least, suppress prepositions, cannot imitate this procedure. For this reason English collocations are difficult to translate succinctly, and an acceptable term emerges only when the referent becomes as important (usually as a universal, but occasionally as a feature of the SL culture) that a more or less lengthy functional-descriptive term will no longer do.


Any word from a proper name (therefore including toponyms) when they refer directly to the person, they are translated without difficulty but if they refer to the referent's ideas or qualities, the translator may have to add necessary explanations. When derived from objects, eponyms are usually brand names, and can be transferred only when they are equally well known and accepted in the TL (e.g. ' nylon,' but 'durex' is an adhesive tape in Australian English).

In general, the translator should curb the use of brand name eponyms.

New eponyms deriving from geographical names appear to be rare—most commonly they originate from the products (wines, cheeses, sausages etc) of the relevant area in translation the generic term is added until the product is well enough known.

Phrasal words

New 'phrasal words' are restricted to English's facility in converting verbs to nouns (e.g. 'work-out,' 'trade-off,' 'check-out,' 'thermal cut-out,' 'knock-on (domino) effect,' 'laid-back,' 'sit-in').

Note that phrasal words: (a) are often more economical than their translation; (b) usually occupy the peculiarly English register between 'informal' and 'colloquial,' whilst their translations are more formal.

Transferred words

Newly transferred words keep only one sense of their foreign nationality; they are the words whose meanings are least dependent on their contexts.

They are likely to refer to everyday, rather than technological, concepts or products, and given the power of the media, they may be common to several languages, whether they are cultural or have cultural overlaps, but have to be given a functional-descriptive equivalent for a less sophisticated TL readership. Newly imported foodstuffs, clothes ('Cagoule,' 'Adidas,' 'Sari'), cultural manifestations ('Kungfu') are translated like any other cultur-bound words, and are therefore usually transferred together with a generic term and the requisite specific detail depending or readership and setting.


Acronyms are an increasingly common feature of all non-literary texts, for reasons of brevity or euphony, and often to give the referent an artificial prestige to rouse people to find out what the letters stand for. In science the letters are occasionally joined up and become internationalisms ('laser,' 'maser'), requiring analysis only for a less educated TL readership.

The words radar and laser are acronyms: each of the letters that spell the word is the first letter (or letters) of some other complete word. For example, radar derives from radio detecting and ranging and laser derives from light amplification (by) stimulated emission (of) radiation. It is important to note that even though such words are originally created as acronyms, speakers quickly forget such origins and the acronyms become new independent words. The world of computers offers a wealth of acronyms. Here are just a few:

Acronym Source
URL (pronounced "earl") uniform resource locator
GUI (pronounced "gooey") graphical user interface
DOS (pronounced "doss") disc operating system
SCSI (pronounced "skuzzy") small computer system interface
LAN (pronounced "lan") local area network
GIF (pronounced "jiff") graphics interchange format

Acronyms formation is just one of the abbreviation, or shortening, processes that are increasingly common in American society (and perhaps internationally) as a means of word formation.


Lastly, the translator has to beware of pseudo-neologisms where, for instance, a generic word stands in for a specific word. And the only generalization Newmark can make is that the translator should be neither favorable nor unfavorable in his view of new words.

The Creation of Neologisms


New words can also be formed from existing ones by various blending processes: for example, motel (from motor hotel), infomercial (from information and commercial), edutainment (from education and entertainment), brunch (from breakfast and lunch), cafetorium (from cafeteria and auditorium), netiquette (from network etiquette), trashware (from trash and software), and bit (from binary and digit)

Generified Words

The words Kleenex and Xerox illustrate another technique for creating new words, namely, using specific brand names of products as names for the products in general (generification). Hence Kleenex, a brand name for facial tissue, has come to denote facial tissue in general. Xerox is the name of the corporation that produces a well-known photocopying machine, and much to the dismay of the company, the term Xerox has lost its specific brand-name connotation and has come to be used to describe the process of photocopying in general.

Borrowing: Direct

Yet another way to expand our vocabulary is to "borrow" words from other languages. Speakers of English aggressively borrow words from other languages. We have kindergarten (German), and sushi (Japanese) among many others.

Borrowing: Indirect

An interesting type of borrowing occurs when an expression in one language is translated literally into another language. For example, the borrowed terms firewater and iron horse are literal translations of Native American words meaning "alcohol" and "railroad train".

Semantic Drift

Over time the meanings of words can change, or drift. A rather striking example of change has occurred in the word lady. Half of it was the Old English word for "bread" (related to the modern word loaf) and dighe was the word for "kneader" (related to the modern word dough). Thus, the original "kneader of bread" has experienced a rather remarkable increase in status.

Compounds and Compounding

In English (as in many other languages) new words can be formed from already existing words by a process known as compounding, in which individual words are "joined together" to form a compound word. For example, the noun ape can be joined with the noun man to form to form the compound noun ape-man; the adjective red can be joined with the adjective hot to form the compound adjective red-hot.

Compounds are not limited to two words, as shown by examples such as bathroom towel-rack and community center finance committee. Indeed, the process of compounding seems unlimited in English: starting with a word like sailboat, we can easily construct the compound sailboat rigging, from which we can in turn create sailboat rigging design, sailboat rigging design training, sailboat rigging design training institute, and so on.

The Agentive Suffix '-er'

Agentive nouns are formed by the word formation rule "Add the suffix '-er' to a verb".

The Diminutive Suffix '-y/-ie'

English has a so-called diminutive suffix, usually spelled -y (or -i.e.), which is added to nouns such as those in the following pairs: dad-daddy, mom-mommy, dog-doggy, and horse-horsie.

How to Translate Neologisms

Dictionaries lag behind changes in languages. New words, figurative words and phrases, slang and nonce words1 are coined in the language so swiftly that no dictionary can and should register them immediately. Indeed, the number of neologisms appearing in mass media during a year amounts to tense of thousands in developed languages. For example:

English: schoolteacherly

Russian: студент-платник (a student who pays tuition fees)

Therefore, translators have to find out the meaning of very new neologisms mainly based on the context (a sentence, paragraph, chapter or even the whole document) in which the neologism is used. Neologisms are usually formed on the basis of words and morphemes that already exist in the language. The analysis of these words and morphemes is an additional helpful tool in finding out the meaning of the neologism. For this purpose, the translator should remember word-formation rules, in particular the following:

1. Giving words new affixes (i.e. suffixes, prefixes, and endings attached to words/word stems to form new words), for example:

English: losingest, googling, telescam

Russian: постсоветский (post-Soviet), мобильник (a mobile phone), наркотизм (narcotism)

2. Creation of new meaning of existing words, for example:

English: footprint - an impact on our planet

Russian: мыло ("an email" - the new IT-slang meaning; "a soap" - the traditional meaning)

3. Loanwords (mostly professional and scientific terms borrowed from other languages), for example:

English: glasnost (from Russian: publicity, openness), ponzu (from Japanese: a sauce made with soy sauce and citrus juice), chuddies (from Hindi: underpants)

Russian: бизнес-ланч (from English: a business lunch), секьюрити (from English: a bodyguard), спичрайтер (from English: a speech writer)

4. Semi-abbreviations (words made up of parts of other words), abbreviations and acronyms, for example:

English: biosecurity, nomophobia (an abbreviation for "no-mobile-phone phobia" which means a fear of being out of mobile phone contact), FSU (the Former Soviet Union)

Russian: СПИД (AIDS), страхагент (an insurance agent), туроператор (a tour operator)

Ways of translating neologisms:

- Selection of an appropriate analogue in a target language

- Transcription and transliteration

- Loan translation and calque

- Explanatory translation and descriptive translation


In non-literary texts, you should not normally create neologisms. You create one only: (a) If you have authority; (b) If you compose it out of readily understood Graeco-Latin morphemes.

In a literary text, it is translator's duty to re-create any neologism he meets, on the basis of the SL neologism. When translating a popular advertisement, he can create a neologism, usually with a strong phonaesthetic effect, if it appears to follow the sense of its SL 'counterpart' and is pragmatically effective. The translator can transfer an SL cultural word, if for one reason or another he thinks it important. If he recreates an SL neologism using the same Graeco-Latin morphemes, he has to assure himself: (a) that no other translation already exists; (b) that both the referent and the neologism are not trivial, and that they are likely to interest the SL readership. The more general questions of neologism translation are dependent on language planning, policy and politics. Given the world domination of English, most countries are faced with two forms of English neologisms: (a) Graeco-Latin forms (b) monosyllable collocation. The first are naturalized in most countries, but have their morpheme components translated in Arabic, Japanese and other Asian languages.


Akmajian, A et al.eds. (2001) Lingustics. Massachusetts: Institute of technology.

Collins Cobuild English Dictionary (1995) (new edition). The University of Birmingham. HarperCollinsPublishers.

Jacqueline, L.Kam-Mei (2001) 'A study of semi-technical vocabulary in computer science texts, with special reference to ESP teaching and lexicography.' Available from: http://hdl.handle.net/1783.1/1056

Niska, H. (1998) Explorations in translational creativity: Strategies for interpreting neologisms. Workshop paper, 8th Aug, Stockholm University. Available from: http://lisa.tolk.su.se/kreeng2.htm

Newmark, P.A Text book of translation, Prentice Hall International (UK) Ltd: 1988

Ray, Alein, Essays on Terminology, Translated and edited by Juan C. Sager, Amsterdam: John Benjamins publishing Company, 199

Silvia, P. (2001)'Handbook of Terminology.' Terminology and standardization Directorate. Translation Bureau. Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Yrokari, C. (2005) Translating English Neologisms in science, Technology, and IT: A General Survey and a Case Study for Greek.


1 nonce words are neologisms made up by writers and publicist for a special literary effect. They are rarely adopted into common language.