How a Word is Born

One of the better known committees in the Academy deals with the creation of new words for general use. As opposed to committees that focus on terms associated with specific professions, the initiative for general words tends to come from the public, who seeks Hebrew alternatives for foreign words that are commonly used in everyday speech. Requests for Hebrew terms often are accompanied by a specific suggestion for a Hebrew word. 

If it is decided that a Hebrew alternative is desirable, the committee first turns to existing Hebrew sources for a solution. Many words are thus “recycled” from the past, sometimes with a slight change in their original meaning. For example, the Hebrew term for “open air museum” uses the word katur to express “open air”; it occurs in the book of Ezekiel and may have dealt with enclosed courts. Most new Hebrew words are built in the usual manner, i.e., with a root (shoresh) and pattern (mishkal). In this way, existent Hebrew roots can be manipulated into new meanings, such as hedbek for the French word “collage”, which is instantaneously recognizable for those familiar with other words based on the root d-b-k (to glue).

One of the more intriguing questions for the Academy and the public at large is to what extent the new terms are picked up by the public, and whether it is possible ahead of time to know whether a word will become “popular”. It appears that one indication is the ease with which the root of the word is perceived and understood; however, it is difficult to determine objective standards for measuring popularity. In many cases, the quick absorption of a word is dependent upon the mass media, but professionals can aid in a word’s “catchiness” if they include them in their lexicons. More than one hundred years of experience in creating new terms shows that occasionally a word may catch on only after a decade or more. For example, the word “information” (meda) was created in 1959 as a psychological term, and only beginning in the 1990s was it truly found in common speech.

Back to top