The Oxford English Dictionary cites Charles Dickens as inventing 265 words and ascribing new meaning to more than 1,500 existing terms. Etymology and linguistics blogger Michael Quinion notes, however, that this isn’t really the case. Dickens just kind of had his ear to the ground, socially and politically. Most great writers do.
When it comes to linguistics and internet content, the creation of words is a much more quantifiable process. Tools like Google Trends can map the overall use and popularity of a word or phrase to give anyone the ability to track keywords, and like most organic processes, the internet has expedited the adoption of novel terms into the American lexicon.
Words, for marketers and content writers alike, are currency, and in an evolving media marketplace, we encounter new words, phrases and methods of communication every day.
“Monomania” is a word Herman Melville made famous in and with Moby Dick, and the word was first used (by Jean Esquirol in a medical encyclopedia) only 28 years before Melville published his novel. “Monomania” was a subtle reworking of the condition “melancholia,” a term psychiatrists had previously favored (melancholia, that is). Perhaps even more interesting, in all of Moby Dick‘s 212,758 words, Melville never calls Ahab “melancholy.” Not once. Like Dickens, Melville was paying attention to the changing world around him, and Ahab wasn’t a melancholic – he was a monomaniac.
Understanding the organic adoption of terms like this is important for content marketers to grasp as a process because it echoes the editorial work of today’s content writers. Words, for marketers and content writers alike, are currency, and in an evolving media marketplace, we encounter new words, phrases and methods of communication every day.
Melville’s use of the term “monomania” as a psychological term can be compared to today’s use of preferred, industry-specific jargon on the internet. If searchers are using certain terms to find content on the web, it’s important for brands and other publishers to use these terms carefully and correctly, and to understand associated connotations. A firm understanding of an industry or audience-specific lexicon allows marketers to not only use words and phrases correctly and effectively, but to develop new terms and guide the evolution of popular and practical usage.
A firm understanding of an industry or audience-specific lexicon allows marketers to not only use words and phrases correctly and effectively, but to develop new terms and guide the evolution of popular and practical usage.
In a more universal sense, consider the birth and subsequent evolution of the word “boredom.” Michael Quinion notes that Charles Dickens, who is often credited with the invention of the word, first used it in Bleak House in 1853. However, the term had previously appeared in the Theatrical Examiner in April 1841 (N.B. Dickens contributed to the Examiner pretty consistently between 1837 and 1849, so it’s not so far-fetched that he came across and subsequently popularized the word.), and the Online Eytmology Dictionary notes that the first uses of the word “bore” as a noun to suggest “ennui” started popping up at the turn of the 19th century, while diplomatically noting that “boredom” first appeared in 1852.
What’s interesting is the fact that boredom is a word and a feeling that we, as Americans, understand as very much of a standalone, root term. An online search for the definition of “boredom” first (somewhat comically) produces, “The state of being bored,” along with the synonyms “tedium,” “ennui,” “weariness,” “dullness,” and (again) “bored.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word simply as “the condition of being bored; ennui.” Boredom is just boredom. Everyone knows what boredom is, and we can’t imagine a world without boredom. Although the term “ennui” comes up regularly as a synonym or definitively associated term, the two words aren’t in any way etymologically connected, and the French ennui tends to connote a borderline despair that isn’t exactly what you’d call boredom.
The point is this: if boredom can really only be defined by and of itself, how is it, exactly, that the word is only about 170 years old?
In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace references L.P. Smith’s The English Language, which says that many words, like boredom, arise “from their own cultural necessity.” People didn’t need a word for boredom before the industrial revolution because they weren’t bored. The age of industry was, Wallace writes, the age of “the mass man, the automated turbine and drill bit and bore, yes? Hollowed out?”
The written word isn’t changing to better suit Google – Google is constantly evolving to better understand and value the well-written word.
“When the kind of experience that you’re getting a man-sized taste of becomes possible, the word invents itself.”
While playing etymological detective can be fascinating, some of the most interesting cases remain unsolved or are, by their nature, unsolvable.
Of course, we’re talking about novelists, all of whom didn’t have access to Google Trends. That link, to an article from August of 2008, looks at the proliferation of the term “cloud computing” on the internet. The relatively fast growth and adoption of words that spread through print publications in the 19th century is fascinating, and when you add enormous and lightning-fast analytic communicative tools to the equation, you see clearly how a word or phrase can become entrenched in our vocabulary on a huge scale today, almost instantaneously.
Although web content writers and marketers may conceptualize words as currency with the advent of keyword tracking and valuation tools, maintaining too much of a quantified understanding of text is detrimental. On a high level, search engine algorithms today are developed to recognize quality – of content, of site architecture and of accountability – and ultimately, a programmer’s goal is to create an algorithm complex enough to properly value text that is crafted carefully and lovingly.
Effective integration of keywords into content is one of the primary factors in the relevance and ultimate success of web content, but a formula should never overwhelm a narrative.
It’s a common misconception that Charles Dickens was paid by the word. He wasn’t. Writing remains (except maybe on the occasionally brilliant, though largely conceptual, experimental fringes) a process rooted in narrative communication. The written word isn’t changing to better suit Google – Google is constantly evolving to better understand and value the well-written word. The company’s distinguished engineer, Matt Cutts, recently affirmed that marketers often pay too much attention to keyword density instead of focusing on language for users.
Writers and marketers are not sober amalgamators, they are forward-thinking communicators, and they tell stories. Effective integration of certain terms (keywords) into content is one of the primary factors in the relevance and ultimate success of web content, but a formula should never overwhelm a narrative. While the determination of proper terms may be a bit more clinical with internet content writing, the process remains, at its root, an organic response to words that arise from social necessity (like bored), progress (like monomania) or even popular culture.