A neologism is a new word or expression. All language is fluid. The way words are used and the meanings conveyed by those words change over time. Some words drop out of usage, and others enter the language. When a new word is introduced and begins to gain acceptance—but before it is so widely accepted that everyone just thinks of it as a word like any other—it is called a neologism. (Neo means “new,” and logism is from the Greek logos, which means “word”). A neologism can also be an existing word used in a brand-new way or a combination of words used to mean something completely new.
Authors sometimes use new words to communicate something specific, and occasionally their neologism will catch on and become embedded in the language at large. For instance, the word sanctimonious was first used in its disparaging sense by William Shakespeare in Measure for Measure.
Advances in science and technology bring many new words into popular usage. In the early 1980s, every space shuttle launch was big news. The launches would be covered live on television, superseding all other programming. On one occasion a launch was delayed because of “a problem with the software.” Many of the people watching the broadcast had no idea what “software” was. The word had been around for over 20 years and was used in specific settings, but it was not until computers became part of our everyday lives that software became a common term. Anyone under 30 years old reading this article probably cannot remember a time when they did not know about software, while they may know very little about the space shuttle.
Webinar—“a seminar held over the web”—is a neologism that has become popular over the past year. Blog was a neologism just a few years ago and is a short form of web log, “a log or record of activities published on the web.” In fact, web, when used to refer to the Internet, was a neologism in that it took an old word and gave it a new meaning. Internet was a neologism just a couple of decades ago. “You should Facebook that picture,” “Google that,” and “Just PayPal me the money” are other examples of neologisms along with e-signature, e-book, e-commerce, e-mail, texting, selfie, and emoji. A generation ago microwave, used as a noun or a verb, was a neologism.
Social justice is made up of two old words, but the single term has come to the fore of public consciousness in the past year, as has the term mask mandate, which would have been next to meaningless in the summer of 2019. COVID (which is short for “COrona VIrus Disease”) is a neologism that burst into our language in early 2020 and will probably be with us for decades to come. At one time virus meant something that could cause a physical disease. Then, for a couple of decades, the most feared virus was something that would infect your computer. Then, with the emergence of social media (another neologism), “going viral” was a good thing. Since 2020, virus has come full circle and means the same thing it did a hundred years ago.
With very little effort, anyone reading this article could probably come up with dozens of neologisms that have passed into popular usage within their lifetime.
The writers of the New Testament used a few neologisms in Greek. Paul, for example, combined two Greek words, arseno (“man”) with koitai (“bed”) to form arsenokoitai (“homosexuals”) in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Matthew and Luke both used what is assumed to be a neologism in Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3: epiousion, usually translated “daily.”
Translators of the English Bible have also used neologisms. The Tyndale Bible (1526) was the first English translation to come directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and it contained some new words. Words created by William Tyndale in his translation include Jehovah, Passover, scapegoat, and, most famously, atonement.
Some terms used in Christian circles were at one time neologisms, including quiet time, worship space, seeker-sensitive, and hedge of protection. Newer words (and new uses of older words) gaining traction in our religious language include missional, intentional, Christ-follower, exvangelical, and deconstruction.
Because language is constantly changing, Christians need to regularly evaluate the language we use when communicating biblical truth. Nuance and connotation are often as important as definition. There is a constant struggle and balance between using words that the popular culture understands and leaving the message of Scripture unchanged.