Word Watch

Here are a few of the words being tracked by the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin. A new word that exhibits sustained use may eventually make its way into the dictionary. The information below represents the first stage of research, not the final product.

buildering noun, the sport of scaling the faÇades of tall buildings, often without the use of climbing equipment: “Bob Barton has a fantasy. He someday wants to climb the 64-story U.S. Steel building. Barton said his art [is] dubbed buildering” (UPI).

BACKGROUND: Buildering, which denotes one of several spinoffs of rock climbing, occurs in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, published in the 1930s (the book describes the creative scaling techniques used by curfew-breaking undergraduates), but it is not to be found in most general dictionaries. The formation of buildering was undoubtedly influenced by bouldering, a term that goes back to 1920 and refers to basic or intermediate rock climbing. According to a 1978 article in The Washington Post, “Builderers prefer older, stone structures to builder on,” because they have more jamcracks (tiny openings into which the builderer can jam a knuckle, a finger, or a toe) than sleekskinned modern high-rises do. Diehard builderers enjoy extemporaneous climbs. George Willig, who climbed the World Trade Center in 1977, says, “Very often you walk down the street, see a building that looks interesting and decide to give it a try” ( The Washington Post).

egoboo noun, recognition of or praise for one’s activities as a science-fiction fan or sciencefiction writer: “Someone who’s into fanac [fan activities] contributes a lot of . . . time to working on fanzines, organizing conventions, etc. One of the rewards is egoboo" (The Washington Post),

BACKGROUND: Egoboo, probably a blend of ego and boost, is virtually exclusive to the world of sci fi. According to the Post, “Over the years a vast number of fannish locutions have come and gone,” bur fanzine, zine, fanac, and egoboo are still being used. So is cyberpunk, a movement among some young science-fiction writers, who present visions of a future world dominated by drug use, computer technology, and cybernetics. Few such terms ever emerge from their subcultures to penetrate the mainstream, but it does happen. The slang word rad (a clipped form of radical), used in locutions such as “rad moves” and “That’s rad, man,” and meaning variously “expert,” “excellent,” and “super,” was once used exclusively by skateboarders, snowboarders, and the like. But in the past few years rad has been picked up by young people across the county.

incentverb, to stimulate to action; provide incentive for or to: “ The government felt that we needed to incent activity which is highly risky” (Edmund Pratt, the CEO of Pfizer, on The MacNeil!Lehrer NewsHour).

BACKGROUND: The verb incent is a back-formation from incentive. A back-formation is a new word created by removing from an existing word a true affix or an element mistakenly thought to be an affix. This process, which reverses the more usual trend of word formation by deleting, rather than adding, elements, is frowned upon by many linguistic conservatives—sometimes, as perhaps in this case, for good reason. But as Roy Copperud writes in Usage and Style: The Consensus, “Usefulness is what wins backformation acceptance” over time. Examples of back-formations that have gained widespread acceptance are edit, formed from editor; sedate, from sedative; televise, from television; diagnose, from diagnosis; and donate, from donation. Strangely enough, incentive has spawned yet another verb, incentivize, which is sure to offend the sensibilities of many Englishspeakers. Overuse of the very productive suffix -ize to create coinages such as concretize, envisionize, and audiblize may offend both the eye and the ear. Nevertheless, critics would not turn a hair at symbolize, criticize, formalize, hospitalize, publicize, nationalize, popularize, modernize, epitomize, or rationalize, ten words that have been extant for a combined total of 2,505 years.

softgel noun, a one-piece, hermetically sealed soft gelatin shell containing medication in a liquid or semisolid state, which has been formed, filled, and sealed in one operation: “Many persons have a hard time differentiating between one-piece softgels and two-piece hard-shell capsule dosage forms. ... I hope that the use of this new name will help serve to make that differentiation” (Frank E. Young, M.D., the commissioner of food and drugs of the Food and Drug Administration). BACKGROUND: Here’s an example of how events can shape a word. Soft-gelatin capsules were widely used prior to the incidents of tampering with two-piece medicine capsules that have occurred in the past five years. But in the aftermath of the poisonings consumers frequently shied away from the tamper-proof soft-gelatin capsules, pharmaceutical-industry analysts found, because the very word capsule on the label led people wrongly to conclude that the bottle must contain tamper-prone two-piece capsules. Several substitute terms for soft-gelatin capsule were suggested in an effort to eradicate the troublesome capsule. One suggestion was pearl, because that is what the configuration of the dosage resembles. In the end, however, the collapsed form softgel won group approval. Today softgel is to be found on the labels of nearly half of all soft-gelatin non prescription products. It is expected that within 18 months that figure will rise to three quarters. □