What Are Neologisms & How To Translate Them

By Kristina Temelkova
I'm from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and I'm currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Vienna. My lifelong passions are languages and writing. I speak English, Bulgarian, German and Russian.
March 30, 2022

Neologisms or, simply said, new words, are real nightmares for translators!

Neologisms are inevitable since our languages constantly evolve: new words are created through technological advances, the media, the social sciences, or the speakers of a language and the dialects, slang, and jargon they use.

Generally, a language acquires up to 3,000 new words every year. Most of these words do not appear in dictionaries or other language-related resources.

This makes it difficult for translators to find out the meaning of a neologism. 


Indeed, neologism requires near-perfect language expertise as well as a good understanding of the target audience of a text to overcome the obstacles that new words pose.

Do you want to learn more about new words and how translators overcome this challenge?

This blog is all about creating new words in a language and dealing with neologisms in translation! 

What Are Neologisms? 

Neologisms can be defined as lexical units, either existing or newly coined, that express a novel concept or idea.

Neologisms can be existing words that have acquired new meanings or a completely new vocabulary item.

Words like “Google,” “spam,” “troll,” “ego surfer,” ” BFF” are neologisms. They appear in a language due to the development of science, social life, culture, etc.

How Are New Words Created?

New words or neologisms are formed based on word formation rules. This means that most of the time (although there certainly are exceptions), words are not just randomly assigned letters, but rather vocabulary units whose origin could be traced back.


What’s more, a new word does not simply enter a language. There are three main stages before a neologism becomes a part of the vocabulary of a language.

  • The first stage is the “creation” of a new word. At this stage, the word is not widely used.
  • Then, there is the so-called “trial.” This is when the word gains popularity but is still used only in certain situations and contexts.
  • Last, a word has been “established,” which is the last stage, when it appears in dictionaries, glossaries, or corpora. This is a sign that a word has gained widespread approval.

However, keep in mind that once a word appears in a dictionary, for instance, it does not mean that it stops evolving. 

Indeed, a word can go through these three stages over and over again, or every time it accumulates a new meaning. 

Also Read: What Are The Fastest Growing Languages?

Examples Of Different Types Of Neologisms

Language is our primary means of communication. To accommodate our needs, languages constantly evolve, as the world we live in does. As a result, new words or neologisms are created to make our communication more efficient.

But how are neologisms created?

Let’s have a look at the different types of neologisms to help you get a clear idea!

  • Existing Words & Collocations:

As you already know, one possible way to create a neologism is to add a new sense to an existing lexical item. In this regard, we can have either existing words or collocations that acquire new meanings.

Generally, old words tend to acquire non-cultural and non-technical meanings. In other words, they do not refer to new processes or objects but rather acquire meanings that are more or less related to their old ones (but not necessarily!). 

For instance, the Russian word “мыло” used to mean “a soap,” but today it is typically used to denote “an email.” As you can see, there is no relation between the two meanings.

If you look at the English word “footprint,” which means both “the impression left by a foot or shoe on the ground or a surface” and “the area occupied or affected by something,” you can certainly see some relation between the two meanings.

When dealing with this type of neologism, the translator has to pick an already existing term with the same meaning in the target language (TL) or opt for a brief descriptive or functional term.

Collocations with newly acquired meanings, on the other hand, are much more complex and thus, are among the biggest traps for a translator. They can be cultural and non-cultural as well as technical or non-technical terms. 

For instance, “token woman” can be a normal descriptive collocation as well as a technical term, meaning “single woman representative on a committee of men.” 

Indeed, this tendency of existing collocations to acquire new technical or cultural meanings makes them very hard to translate. Generally, if the referent (the object or concept referred to) exists in the TL, one should look for an existing recognized translation or a through-translation in TL.

Otherwise, the translator should use an economical descriptive equivalent, or they should devise a new collocation in inverted commas. 

  • New Coinages:

Some linguists will argue that there is no way to create new words since all words are derived from the same morphemes. However, there are a few words that defy this hypothesis. 

For instance, the word “byte” (also spelled as “bite”) is a neologism that refers to “the basic unit of information in computer storage and processing”.

Usually, these words are transcribed or transliterated when it comes to translation. 

Also Read: Translation, Transcreation, and Transliteration: What’s the difference

  • Derived Words

The great majority of neologisms are derived from words, meaning that they stem from other languages.

For example, the Russian word “зонтик,” meaning “umbrella,” is derived from the Dutch word “zondek.”

  • Abbreviations, Acronyms & Pseudo-Neologisms

Abbreviations are often referred to as “pseudo-neologism” since they contain existing words. However, by combining these words’ first letters, we create a new lexical unit – an abbreviation.

Sounds complicated, but it is not, believe me! 

Have a look at the neologism “CD,” which is an abbreviation of “Compact Disc.” By taking the initial letters of this phrase, a new word is formed.

Other good examples of abbreviations are – ER (emergency room). PC (personal computer or politically correct), HTML (HyperText Markup Language) or IP (Internet Protocol). 


You have to keep in mind that there are different types of abbreviations. For instance, you can have initialisms such as “National Security Administration” or “NSA” while the United States is pronounced as “the US.” As you can see, each letter is individually pronounced.

Mr (mister) or Dr (doctor), on the other hand, are known as clipped abbreviations. In most cases, it is only the spelling that differs, while the pronunciation remains the same as in the original word.

Another type of abbreviation is acronyms, and they are pronounced as words. For example, NASA, which stands for “National Aeronautical and Space Administration,” is pronounced as a whole word. 

Acronyms are increasingly common in non-literary texts, especially in scientific ones. 

What’s more, since they are pronounced as words, people often forget that acronyms are very similar to abbreviations. So, this makes it necessary to include particular explanations when it comes to translation. 

  • New Collocations:

New collocations are especially common in computer language and the social sciences. They usually contain either noun compounds or an adjective and a noun.

For instance, “lead time” is a new collocation that h refers to “the time between design and production” or “between ordering and delivery of a product.” Since this phrase has two possible meanings, context is very important when translating. This holds for other new collocations that might have more than one meaning. 

Other collocations, such as ‘acid rain,’ are more transparent and often refer to universal phenomena. Thus, they can be translated literally.

“Sunrise industries” is a collocation that refers to the ‘high-tech’ industries. Since there might not be the same collocation in the TL, one could ignore the metaphor and translate it to its original meaning. 


  • Eponyms

Eponyms refer to any object that is named after its inventor or discoverer. For instance, the Caesar Salad bears the name of its creator – the restaurateur Caesar Cardini.

While in the case of Caesar Salad, it has established itself internationally, which makes translation easier. However, it is not always the case. 

Sometimes the translator needs to add additional explanations if the eponym is not well known in the TL.

For instance, the garment “cardigan” bears the name of the 7th Earl of Cardigan, whose troops wore this garment into battles. “Cardigan” is mainly used in English. Thus, when translated, additional comments should be added, if needed. 


Eponyms can be derived from geographical names. However, such new eponyms are rather rare and usually originate from products such as wines, sausages, cheese, etc.

In translation, the generic term is added to the eponym until the product and its name become easily recognizable.

For instance, “Alzheimer’s disease” bears the name of Alois Alzheimer, who is credited with identifying “presenile dementia.” As you can see, besides the name of the inventor, there is a generic term “disease” implying what it is. 

  • Phrasal Words

Eponyms refer to any object that is named after its inventor or discoverer. For instance, the Caesar Salad bears the name of its creator – the restaurateur Caesar Cardini.

While in the case of Caesar Salad, it has established itself internationally, which makes translation easier. However, it is not always the case. 

Sometimes the translator needs to add additional explanations if the eponym is not well known in the TL.

For instance, the garment “cardigan” bears the name of the 7th Earl of Cardigan, whose troops wore this garment into battles. “Cardigan” is mainly used in English. Thus, when translated, additional comments should be added, if needed. 

Also Read: Natural Language vs. Constructed Language vs. Artificial Languages

  • Transferred Words

Newly transferred words are taken from another language. However, they have undergone certain adaptations to the new language. Transferred words are also called borrowings or loanwords. Such words are “herbs” from French “herbes” or “alligator” from Spanish “el lagarto,” meaning lizard. 

Transferred words often refer to common objects rather than technical terms. Through media, some transferred words might become internationally known, which, in turn, makes translation much easier.

Newly transferred words typically refer to foods (Sushi), clothes (‘Cagoule,’ ‘Adidas,’ ‘Sari’), or cultural manifestations (‘Kungfu’). 

When they are not internationally known, transferred words are usually translated as most culturally-bound words. They are translated together with a generic term to imply the meaning of the word. Another possibility is adding explanations. 


How Are Neologisms Translated?

In linguistics, there is a term called productivity, which is used in relation to the ability of any language to create new vocabulary units. 

Indeed, productivity is among the main characteristics of a language. As you know, we need languages to communicate what is happening in our world. And since the world we live in constantly evolves, languages have to keep up. 

But how? Through productivity, but only!

In fact, neologisms can be considered a result of productivity as well as creativity. In this regard, creativity implies the unpredictable nature of neologisms. They follow particular word-formation rules, but we cannot predict how they would form or when they would enter a language.

What’s more, new words and phrases emerge constantly, and dictionaries cannot keep up. As a result, language-related resources often lag behind the development of languages. 

Since it is basically impossible to document all new words, neologisms are hard to translate.

Still, it’s not impossible.

Linguists need to have perfect conduct of a language, to grasp even the slightest nuance of meaning in a text. They have to be able to find the meaning of an unknown or ambiguous neologism based on the context of a sentence, paragraph or text level.

Most of the time, neologisms are derived from already existing words or morphemes. Thus, a translator should be aware of the word-formation rules in a language since it could help them discover the meaning of an unknown phrase. 

Once the meaning of neologism is clear, the translator can move one to find/ create an equivalent in the target language. 

Also Read: Top Qualities Of Good Translation

In conclusion

Neologisms are among the greatest challenges that translators face! Languages constantly evolve, and new words emerge to make our communication more effective. These so-called neologisms are often undocumented, which makes finding an equivalent in the target language an almost impossible task.

Yet, translators make it possible by using creative techniques, research, and keeping up with the evolution of language. 

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