New words are new worlds

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 1, 2006
Filed in Insight

I’ve just arrived home from a week at Jervis Bay—stayed with my folks. My family and I spent lots of time on the beach and reading books. I was kept entertained by Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English which, among other things, got me thinking about how to keep abreast of new developments. Rather than trawling through bit-oceans of online resources perhaps we should just keep an eye on the latest words which make it into our dictionaries. As Bragg points out, new words are new worlds. And these new worlds might help us see new opportunities.

This part of the year is a great time to look for new words, or so I thought. Yes, there are many lists of the top 10 most popular words for 2005. For example lists the words most searched on for the year which included:

  • love, karma, virtue, cynical, fallacious

But these popularity contests merely reflect the events of the year in some way. Words like tsunami, refugee and pandemic, which made the Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2005, reflect what was in the news last year.

It was more difficult to find where new words are reported. Probably the most accessible source of new words is which posts new words as they appear in our news, marketing and literature. While I love this site I suspect there are many faddish and ephemeral words here. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Oxford English Dictionary. While only available to subscribers I found you could sign up for a week for 8.80 pounds and search for words first cited in specific years.

Well there are no new words first cited between 2000–2005. But here are some words first cited in 1998–99:

  • blog, blogger, blogging, kiteboard, kiteboarder, Ofgem, weblogger, Bluetooth, Furby, spintronic

Sadly each entry is entered years after it is first cited which makes it useless for picking up emerging trends.

Another approach is to use Blogpulse. If you are interested in a term, such as “narrative,” you can track its use across the blogosphere over the last 6 months. Here is the “narrative” trend and for comparison I’ve added “intelligent design,” which is a hot topic on the net at the moment:


There are probably other good sources for new words. Perhaps one day we will have a tag cloud for the entire blogosphere but would that be useful? Probably not, because it will only highlight the popular, the mainstream. What we are talking about here are ways to detect emerging fields, weak signals and tapping into the long tail. Come to think of it, some interface to wikipedia which illustrates new concepts would be a fabulous tool.



About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Denham says:

    New words are interesting, new distinctions are where we learn, make meaning & bring forth new worlds.
    It takes a sensitivity (deep listening?)to discern a useful shift in meaning as we repurpose existing words far more often than invent new ones.
    Often wonder why KM folks do not pay more attention to language, patterns and distinctions – seems these are near the core of new knowledge.

  2. Thanks for your comment Denham. I like what you are saying about deep listening. I’ve been thinking that our cliche’d sayings like ‘a stitch in time …’ etc survive because they a successful (useful) meme. In our language we seemed to have very few sayings which are about listening. For example, we say, ‘I hear ya’ but that doesn’t really mean we are listening. Rather it seems to be a way to stop someone talking. Perhaps a listening meme will be the first sign that deep listening is beginning to happen.
    Oc course business-narrative (notice I have progressed to a hypenated version now–soon it will be a single word :-)) is all about listening. Quite a bit different than telling stories.

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