One hardly uses these words, they are difficult to either spell or pronounce or both at once, and are not useful in everyday communication. Yet they are found in the dictionary, without fail. They do have their uses, but are very offbeat. These aren't exclusively technical jargon either, because I can at least guess the reasons why those were made.

I'd like to understand the socio-linguistic process behind the birth of such words. I have in mind some words, but if I gave examples, the discussion just might slip into discussing just those words. But you get my drift.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Edwin Ashworth, David, Dan Bron, NVZ, Cascabel Jul 3 '17 at 19:58

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    No, um, I don't. What counts as such a word for you might not for others. Some people use penultimate in everyday speech; some people have never heard of it or, if they have, would never use it. – AmE speaker Jul 1 '17 at 19:24
  • Okay, that comment in itself sheds some light. Examples of words would be as follows: abnegation, antediluvian, concomitant, extraneous, valedictorian, ... I know the meanings of these as well as their correct pronunciation as per the Cambridge dictionary. However, their presence leads me to wonder about the process by which they came to be. In all probability, I should undertake the study of etymology. But at the moment, I am only looking for short hints. – user243226 Jul 1 '17 at 19:42
  • Well, some people would use any or all of those words in everyday conversation, if the context required it. It depends in their vocabulary. And a lot of that depends on how much they read. As for their the origin of such words, they seem to come straight from Latin. – AmE speaker Jul 1 '17 at 20:44
  • 'Yet they are found in the dictionary, without fail.' It depends on which dictionary you call 'the dictionary'; they're all different. / And isn't almost every word 'difficult' the moment it is accepted into the lexicon, because only the fairly small number of instances of usage the OED board say deem necessary for wordness to be proclaimed have been found, meaning most people aren't aware of the neologism? – Edwin Ashworth Jul 1 '17 at 21:00

There is no single answer to how all complex or rare words are formed, but words like the ones mentioned in your comment are often derived by combining affixes with word stems. In other words, they are pieced together from parts that carry existing meanings to create a new, complex meaning.

Though I know you're seeking a general answer, the best illustration is by example, so let's look at the second word you cited, antediluvian, defined as

of or belonging to the time before the biblical Flood.

This is made up of three parts, a prefix, ante-, a stem, and a suffix, -an.

To break it down, the prefix ante- as defined by Oxford English Dictionary means:

Preceding in place or position; usually referring to a smaller space entered before another (usually larger) one.

The stem comes from Latin, dīluvium, meaning "deluge."

The suffix -an can alter a word in various nuanced ways, but essentially it means:

of, or belonging to

So the word antediluvian means essentially, "Of or belonging to a time preceding the flood."

This formula won't always apply neatly to all rare or complex words, but if you approach such words by breaking them down into their parts, the derivation is usually more intuitive. To learn more, the best approach would be to pick certain words that interest you and search for their derivations in OED, or if you don't have access to OED, you can use Etymology Online.

If you take a look at the other example words you cited, you will notice that they also contain affixes and parts that have older meanings than the whole word. There is no singular social phenomenon by which the whole word is ultimately formed, but logic suggests that there must have been a "first use," so consider that a writer might coin such a word by combining meaningful parts and other writers might pick up the word until it rises out of obscurity to become an accepted part of the language. Or perhaps the component parts are so intuitively meaningful that the word could have been independently coined by multiple writers or speakers without knowledge of each other's uses -- ultimately, the end result is the same.

It's also worth noting that a "first use" or "early use" of such words built out of component parts might not be spelled the same as the eventually accepted word. Often a word might originally be made up of hyphenated parts and later be spelled without hyphens.

  • Thank you for taking the time to provide such an elaborate answer. Much appreciated. – user243226 Jul 3 '17 at 0:27