Neophilia and Neologisms: The Psychology Behind Inventing New Words


The human species has often been referred to as neophilic, or novelty-loving. For evolutionary reasons (i.e. being incentivised to be nomadic, or to search for – and explore –  new surroundings), we tend to respond to new stimuli in a positive way – with intrigue, interest, curiosity, and satisfaction. Our species has been deemed so neophilic, as a general fact, that some psychologists believe novelty can be thought of as a basic psychological need.

Of course, some people are neophobic (they have an aversion towards novelty), which may in some cases be pathological (as an irrational fear, which causes distress and/or disruption to normal functioning). However, cases of neophobia do not contradict the idea that the human species is neophilic. For one, humans can still be thought of as neophilic in general. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, neophobia could be seen as denying or neglecting human nature. If novelty is a basic psychological need, then not meeting this need would have negative consequences for the individual, which for psychologists would involve a worsening of well-being, a lack of fulfilment, and a thwarting of personal growth. Pathological neophobia would be a more extreme example of this outcome.

Thus, it can be correct to refer to the human species as neophilic, or driven by a will to novelty, as I like to think of it. There are many aspects of our lives – monotonous lifestyles, cultural factors, fears, phobias, mental distress – that can get in the way of fulfilling our novelty-seeking needs.

This is not to say that there is no natural and healthy variation in novelty-seeking desires. After all, the human species has thrived precisely because of diversity in disposition: communities benefit from having some people who are highly curious and adventurous and others who we might call ‘creatures of comfort’ or ‘homebodies’. Different personality types offer a different set of advantages and disadvantages (or trade-offs). Crucially, though, most people would find a life devoid of novelty and change as a cause of frustration and restlessness at best and severe emotional distress at worst (going beyond mere boredom).

We can observe how vital the unfamiliar is to people’s lives from the fact that we seek out novelty in general, and not just in terms of things that would have benefited our nomadic ancestors, such as venturing to new lands. We also have a hunger for new music, films, art, fashion, technology, possessions, hobbies, experiences, and so on. And the higher the degree of novelty, the more exciting the stimulus is. A whole debate could be had about whether our desires for particular objects of novelty – and the intensity or frequency of those desires – are beneficial or harmful to us. (An obsession with owning new material possessions could be seen as obviously unhealthy, with a focus on experiences seen in a more favourable light; although one can also develop unhealthy attachments to experiences like travel.)

I was thinking recently about how the human search for neologisms – such as new words for unnamed feelings or novel ideas – could be seen as part and parcel of our neophilic nature. The new word becomes a new reference point. But neologisms can stand not just for new words but also for new phrases, and we can start becoming strongly attached to these too if they represent some phenomenon we haven’t quite grasped as distinct, commonplace, or recent. A clever portmanteau or succinct phrase can have a virality to it, spreading across the media and in public conversations like wildfire. Whether a neologism is a portmanteau or two or more words put together in a unique way, to form a new phrase, synthesis is often at the heart of linguistic inventiveness. 

The modern obsession with neologisms, I think, has developed in tandem with the growth of social media and ‘stand out’ culture. The potential virality of a neologism, and social status associated with being its inventor and having others use it, can really drive the incentive to think up new words and phrases. Just as Twitter has helped to drive the rebirth of the aphorism, so too has it (and other social media platforms) allowed people’s neologisms to proliferate.

This is not to say ego is purely behind lexical inventions (if at all), but it is interesting to consider how the creation of novelty is wrapped up with other human concerns, such as imagination, originality, social rewards, and legacy. Perhaps there is a sense in which an invented word can be the vehicle for one’s lasting legacy, no matter how small that may be. Words outlive us, and if one can be the progenitor of a new word or phrase, then it’s as if one becomes a historical fact, rather than a memory held by a select number of people. A neologism can hold the promise of saving us from the fate of becoming unknown.

I once thought I had come up with an ingenious portmanteau to describe the worries that men have surrounding their sense of masculinity (manxiety). But to my disappointment (after doing a Google search for the term), I saw I wasn’t the first to think of it. There might be other occasions where one thinks of a catchy phrase for a trend or phenomenon only to find that an alternative neologism has been used to capture it, which takes away the potency of one’s own phrase.

Beyond egoic factors, neologisms can hold great social value. They can help bring people together around a common idea, or perhaps help others feel seen and understood – people who lacked the words to encapsulate how they’ve been feeling. A neologism can simplify or clarify an idea or thought that might otherwise feel nebulous or indistinct. New words and phrases can help connect us to ourselves, others, the world around us, and even reality itself.

Philosophers of various stripes have been highly productive neologisers, perhaps more so than those from any other profession. New words, or the innovative use of existing words to express concepts without an established terminology, may help us view the world in new ways. Neologisms may help to eff the ineffable. On the other hand, one could argue that the neologising of philosophers can obfuscate and create disconnects, as much as they can clarify and connect us. For example, philosophers who continually use their own neologisms, without defining them for a reader (instead requiring they already have background reading in their work) create barriers to understanding. In this way, neologisms might serve as a form of gatekeeping, intended for a select group, rather than the masses.

This is not to devalue these specialised neologisms, however. They have often been hugely influential, and they hold great potential to change people’s minds and society, which is yet to be realised. The writer John Koenig (who is also a professional neologiser) calls on everyone in his book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, to invent new words. Besides just being a fun creative exercise, this inventiveness can help to enhance lexical and conceptual richness. Our neophilia can encourage logophilia (or lexiphilia), and vice versa.

Neologising is, on the one hand, often a spontaneous thing that happens, with new words and phrases popping into one’s head out of nowhere (or perhaps, some would say, originating from a Muse beyond oneself). Yet it may be possible to encourage conscious neologising, such as by taking an interest in etymology and different languages (after all, Koenig’s neologisms in his book derive from mixing words from different languages together). Furthermore, with reflection and practice, catchier and more aesthetically looking and sounding words and phrases can be invented. Neologising can also be a collaborative effort, with people using others’ neologisms as inspiration, either altering them or using them as a springboard for a more distinct word or expression.

Neophilia is what leads us to create and enjoy thought-provoking texts and speeches, which use pre-existing vocabulary in varied ways. However, we can also satisfy our communication-centred form of novelty-seeking by searching for, discovering, and creating new units of communication. 

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