Language

What Makes a New Word Successful?

Most new words live tragically — or comically — short lives, while others are surprising survivors.

Nancy Friedman
7 min readOct 4, 2023

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As slang terms go, nerf is old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits. Its first appearance in print was documented in 1953, when it was used by auto racers to mean “to nudge something with a bumper in passing and knock it off course.” In 1970, NERF — that’s the official brand styling, although it’s not an acronym — was registered as a trademark for soft foam toys designed for indoor play. By 1995, nerf had been embraced by a different set of indoor players: In video gaming, to nerf something or someone — a weapon, a character — is to reduce its effectiveness, just as a NERF basketball is less powerful than the real deal.

Until September 2023, however, you couldn’t find the video-game sense of nerf in Merriam-Webster’s respected online dictionary. When it finally made the cut, along with 689 other newly added words and definitions, the company heralded the inclusion in an official announcement. “We’re very excited by this new batch of words,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. “We hope there is as much insight and satisfaction in reading them as we got from defining them.”

Not every newcomer took 28 years to arrive in the dictionary. Bussin’ (“extremely good”) emerged around 2006; doomscroll (“to spend excessive time online scrolling through news that makes you feel sad or anxious”) appeared in 2020; rizz (“romantic appeal or charm”) was first documented just two years ago, in 2021.

Then again, some recently added words are even older than nerf. Kayfabe (the portrayal of staged events, especially wrestling matches, as real or “true”) has been around since at least 1988. The first usage of UAP (unidentified aerial phenomenon) was in 1963; it’s now preferred to UFO (unidentified flying object). And rotoscope (to draw or paint over live-action footage frame by frame) first appeared in print in 1960.

Why, you may wonder, are words like rizz accepted so quickly while others, like rotoscope or nerf, have to wait years or decades to appear in dictionaries? What determines a new word’s worth? And who makes the decision?

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.