“Children can’t use word x because it doesn’t exist, and you can’t just make words up.” So said a teacher once on a forum I was following at the time.
My reply was, “Why can’t you?”
Shakespeare is one of the most respected writers of all time, and he invented a whole pile of words! He probably didn’t invent all the 1700 he is often credited with, but there is little doubt that he made up more than a few, including giving new meanings to old words. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
People have been making words up for millennia. Some of the words made up never catch on and are forgotten about; others are used and repeated – and if enough people use and repeat them they enter the hallowed pages of the OED and become an accepted part of the language. I have to wonder whether anyone who claims you can’t make words up has ever taken a selfie (first recorded usage 2002).
Think about it – if you can’t make words up, how did we end up speaking English anyway? Without words ever having been invented we’d still be walking round grunting at each other. We probably wouldn’t have such comfortable lives either, because without the means to record their findings, scientists wouldn’t have been able to keep a record of their successes and failures, and they wouldn’t have been able to pass the baton on to future generations to refine and improve. And what about those inventions? Without making up words, telescopes, televisions, lightbulbs, electricity, football, matches, chocolate and wellington boots would all be referred to as “things”. That would make life confusing!
One of the things I love about the English language is it’s richness: we don’t just have ‘big’, we have ‘huge’, ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’ and ‘gargantuan’. Another thing I love is the fact that you can play with it: if I told you that my road was really carparky in the mornings, you’d know exactly what I meant, even though the word doesn’t (yet) appear in the OED.
In my opinion, instead of telling children, “You can’t just make words up,” we should educate them about when it’s appropriate to make up words (informal speech, creative writing) and when it’s not so appropriate, and then we should leave them to be creative. After all, who knows? One of them might grow up to leave the English language an even greater legacy than Shakespeare did.