Essays - Spring 2006

Shouldn’t There Be a Word ... ?

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The holes in our language and the never-ending search for words to fill them

Michele M. F./Flickr

By Barbara Wallraff

March 1, 2006


 

Imagine being the first person in the world ever to say anything. What fun it would be to fill a language with words: tree, dog, wolf, fire, husband, wife, kiddies. But putting names to things quickly gets complicated. For instance, if I call my husband husband, what should I call my friend’s husband? Just for the sake of argument, let’s say I name him a man. So is my husband still only my husband, or is he, too, a man? Maybe he could go by both names. If we let him have more than one name, he can also be a father—and a hunter-gatherer. Let’s make up words for actions as well as for things: The tree grows new leaves. The dog runs—he runs away from the wolf and toward the fire. You know what? This pastime has possibilities.

That isn’t really how languages developed, of course. But in the beginning there weren’t any words, and now, obviously, there are millions of them, in thousands of languages. Our own language, if we count all the terms in all the specialized jargons attached to English, has millions of words. Between prehistory and the present came a long period in which people who didn’t know a word for something usually had no way of finding out whether any such word already existed. Suppose you wanted to know a plant’s name—the name of a particular shrub that could be used medicinally as a sedative but could also be lethal in high doses. If you asked around and nobody knew what it was called, you’d have little choice but to make up a name. Let’s say hemlock. Why hemlock and not some other word? Nobody knows anymore. The Oxford English Dictionary says hemlock and its antecedents in Middle English and Old English are “of obscure origin: no cognate word is found in the other lang[uage]s.”

William Shakespeare lived and wrote toward the end of that long period, during which English was taking shape but had not been gathered into dictionaries. His writing not only shows the richness the language had already achieved but also shows Shakespeare to have been a prolific word coiner. Besmirch, impede, rant, and wild-goose chase are a few of the more than 1,000 words and phrases that he evidently added to our language. His coinages tend to be more a matter of tinkering or redefining than of plucking words out of thin air (or ayre, as he spelled the word in the phrase “into thin ayre,” in The Tempest). For instance, smirch was a verb before Shakespeare added the prefix be- to it. Impediment, derived from Latin, was in use in English for at least 200 years before Shakespeare came up with impede. But as scholars of Elizabethan English acknowledge, only a limited amount of writing survives from Shakespeare’s time apart from his own. Many of the words whose first recorded use appears in one of Shakespeare’s plays may have been familiar to writers or conversationalists of his day. It’s also possible that in conversation Shakespeare coined many more words than we know—but because he didn’t write them down, they’ve been lost to history.

The English language kept swallowing up, digesting, and drawing energy from other languages’ words. As English grew, word lists of various kinds were compiled and circulated. Lists appeared in The Egerton Manuscript, from about 1450, and in The Book of St. Albans, printed in 1486. But the first comprehensive English dictionary, compiled by Nathan Bailey, was not published until 1730. Samuel Johnson did a bit of cribbing from Bailey to create his famous dictionary of 1755—even though the word copyright was by then in use. Still, it took about another half century for the word to make its way into Johnson’s dictionary.

In 1783, a 25-year-old Noah Webster began publishing The American Spelling Book, which sold more than a million copies annually for years—an astonishing number considering that in 1790, according to the first United States Census, the nation’s total population was less than four million. Far from resting on his laurels, Webster kept working away until he had finished his masterwork, the two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. After that, Americans as well as Britons had fewer excuses to invent words.

Of course, coining words to meet real needs continued—and it continues today, particularly in specialized realms like medicine, technology, fashion, cooking, cartooning, and online games. Sometimes what constitutes a need for a term is subjective. Why do we need myocardial infarction when we already have heart attack? Physicians think we do. Why do we need bling-bling when we already have flashy jewelry? Movie stars and rap musicians think we do. New words coined to meet needs—objective or subjective, real or perceived—have been with us since the beginning.

From the usual point of view, a new word is successful if it catches on—with a subculture or with everyone—and eventually finds its way into dictionaries. But the impulse to coin words runs so deep that we coin many more words than we really need, most of which will never catch on. These words are not failures; they’re pleasures. Coining words is like sex in that it’s necessary to our species—but rarely do people engage in it for the sake of keeping humankind going. We do it because it’s fun.


Credit for being the first to neologize publicly on purpose, for no serious purpose, is usually given to two Englishmen, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, for their nonsense verse. “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” Carroll wrote, in his poem “Jabberwocky,” published in Through the Looking Glass in 1872. Brillig? Slithy? Gyre? Gimble? Wabe? Carroll (whose non–nom de plume was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) coined them all.

In 1867, Lear wrote, “The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea / In a beautiful pea-green boat, / . . . / They dined on mince, and slices of quince, / Which they ate with a runcible spoon.” Behold the world’s first use of runcible spoon. But what is such a thing? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “a kind of fork used for pickles, etc., curved like a spoon and having three broad prongs of which one has a sharp edge.” But, the OED notes, “the illustrations provided by Lear himself for his books of verse give no warrant for this later interpretation.”

Though many nonsense words might seem arbitrary—can you guess from looking at brillig or runcible what it means?—a number of Lewis Carroll’s coinages have a special property. Humpty Dumpty explains this to Alice a bit further on in Through the Looking Glass, when she asks for his help with the unfamiliar words in “Jabberwocky”:

“‘Brillig’ means four o’clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.”

“That’ll do very well,” said Alice; “and ‘slithy’?”

“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Portmanteau words—eureka! With this idea, Carroll bestowed a versatile gift on the world of recreational neologizing. Because portmanteau words are derived from dictionary words, they tend to be less opaque than other new coinages. In fact, chortle, another portmanteau word that Carroll coined in “Jabberwocky,” became a dictionary word because people readily understood how to use it. The Oxford English Dictionary explains chortle’s roots like this: “app[arently] with some suggestion of chuckle, and of snort.” Unfortunately, the portmanteau itself (“a large leather suitcase that opens into two hinged compartments,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it) is now found only in museums and antiques shops. It’s probably time to hunt up a less anachronistic term to carry the meaning into the future. (Among the few suggestions I’ve heard for this, my favorite is twone—two portmanteaued with one.)

We owe a debt to Carroll and Lear, and what they did is delightful, but it is not exactly what I would call “recreational word coining.” Carroll and Lear invented their words for literary purposes—much as Shakespeare did. Literary figures from James Joyce (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnronntonn-erronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawn toohoohoordenenthurnuk!) and George Orwell (Newspeak) to J. R. R. Tolkien (hobbit) and J. K. Rowling (quidditch) have made up words the better to convey worlds largely of their invention. Recreational word coining, however, describes odd corners of the world we know.

Recreational redefining is a related field, which also describes the world we know. Therefore, before we get acquainted with the first true recreational word coiner, who came a bit later, let’s meet the pioneer on this linguistic front—the American writer Ambrose Bierce. Bierce was a near contemporary of Carroll and Lear. In 1875 he finished a freelance manuscript that included 48 English words and his redefinitions of them. This, the first sulfurous spark of what would become The Devil’s Dictionary, failed to set the world on fire. Six years later, Bierce was named editor of Wasp, a new satirical journal, and he immediately began writing and publishing a feature that offered “twisty new definitions of shopworn old words,” as Roy Morris Jr. explains in his introduction to the current Oxford edition of The Devil’s Dictionary. Many of the words from Wasp also took their place among the 998 redefined words that ultimately made up Bierce’s best-known book. An admiral, he wrote, is “that part of a war-ship which does the talking while the figure-head does the thinking.” A habit is “a shackle for the free.” Zeal is “a certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.” In 1912, not long before Bierce lit out for Mexico and disappeared off the face of the earth, he published 12 volumes of his Collected Works, including The Devil’s Dictionary. Since then, the book has never been out of print.

The first true recreational word coiner was another American: Gelett Burgess. Like Carroll and Lear in England, Burgess published nonsense verse—one of his claims to fame is the poem “The Purple Cow.” More to the point, in 1914 he published a spurious dictionary, Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed. Among the words in it is blurb—another of Burgess’s claims to fame, for this creation of his is still in use, with roughly the meaning he assigned it. Alas, few of his other words ever caught on—not without reason, as we shall see.

After a decades-long pause, a spate of books featuring recreational word coining began to appear. For instance, An Exaltation of Larks, which in 1968 began as a collection of venerable terms of venery (“a pride of lions,” “a murder of crows,” “a gam of whales”), has over several revisions incorporated more and more terms that the author, James Lipton (now better known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio, on the Bravo channel), either coined himself or found in the work of contemporary writers: “a phalanx of flashers,” Kurt Vonnegut; “a mews of cathouses,” Neil Simon; “an om of Buddhists,” George Plimpton.

The 1983 book The Meaning of Liff and its 1990 expanded edition The Deeper Meaning of Liff, by the British writers Douglas Adams (author of the 1979 bestseller The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and John Lloyd, merrily misappropriated geographic names from Aasleagh (“a liqueur made only for drinking at the end of a revoltingly long bottle party when all the drinkable drink has been drunk”) to Zeal Monachorum (“[Skiing term.] To ski with ‘zeal monachorum’ is to descend the top three quarters of the mountain in a quivering blue funk, but on arriving at the gentle bit just in front of the restaurant to whizz to a stop like a victorious slalom-champion”).

Between the publication of Liff’s first and second editions, sniglets gave Liff some stiff competition. Rich Hall, a writer and cast member on HBO’s comedy show Not Necessarily the News, came up with the idea of a sniglet as “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.” Sniglets fans sent Hall words like aquadextrous, “possessing the ability to turn the bathtub faucet on and off with your toes,” and profanitype, “the special symbols used by cartoonists to replace swear words (points, asterisks, stars, and so on).” From 1984 to 1989 five books of sniglets were published.

Next came a more serious and high-minded variation on the theme. The writer Jack Hitt asked a number of writers and artists “if they had ever had the experience of running across a meaning for which there is no word,” and he turned the words they proposed into a piece published in Harper’s Magazine in 1990. This was so well received that Hitt expanded the article into a 1992 book, In a Word. Its contributors ranged from Katharine Hepburn to Cynthia Ozick, Lou Reed to Lionel Tiger.

Today there’s The Washington Post’s Style Invitational contest, which has been running every week for nearly 13 years. Sometimes the week’s contest has to do with neologizing or redefining existing words. For instance, readers are occasionally invited to “take any word, add, subtract or alter a single letter, and redefine the word.” The published responses to this request include diddleman, “a person who adds nothing but time to an effort”; nominatrix, “a spike-heeled woman who controls the selection of candidates for party whip”; and compenisate, “to buy a red Porsche for reasons you don’t quite understand.”

There’s my own “Word Fugitives” column, which appears in The Atlantic Monthly. Readers write in seeking words, other readers respond, I choose my favorite suggestions and publish them in the column, and we’ve all done our little bit to move civilization forward. But I’ve also accumulated a private stash of people’s questions that I’ve never, until now, gotten around to publishing.

What kinds of words do people want? Do the holes in our language tell us anything about our society? The requests I get for words easily sort themselves into six categories.


Words about our unruly inner lives. In a sense, of course, all gaps in our language tell us something about our inner lives. Some linguists say that language organizes experience. But language itself is hideously disorganized, especially the English language. Sometimes we have plenty of synonyms or near synonyms to choose from: idea, concept, thought, inspiration, notion, surmise, theory, impression, perception, observation, mental picture. More specialized meanings get specialized words. If, say, you’re looking for a word that can mean either “a phantom” or “an ideal”—why, eidolon stands ready to serve. And yet some fairly common things and phenomena remain nameless. For instance, what would you call the experience of hearing about something for the first time and then starting to notice it everywhere?

That particular hole in the language is worthy of note, because once you’re aware of it, if you begin rooting around in coined words, you’ll start noticing words intended to fill it. It was one of the first requests published in “Word Fugitives”; déjà new took top honors. As I discovered later, essentially the same question had been asked by the writer Lia Matera in In a Word; Matera suggested we call the experience toujours vu. The 2001 book Wanted Words 2, edited by Jane Farrow, also asked the question and presented more than a dozen possible answers, including newbiquitous and coincidensity.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of inner-life-related questions. If you want answers, you’ll have to supply your own, because, again, these haven’t previously been published.

What would be a word for wanting to get someone’s voice mail but getting the person instead?
(submitted by C. Murphy, Medfield, Mass.)

I would like a word for the opposite of déjà vu—a word that would describe the feeling of learning something a hundred times but never being able to remember it.
(A. Felcher, Portland, Ore.)

Words about them. Why is it that there never seem to be enough words in the dictionary to cover everyone we dislike? To make things worse, new kinds of dislikable people keep cropping up. For instance:

We need a word to describe a person who, owing to his life circumstances, clearly is not competent to provide advice but insists on doing so anyway. For example, an unemployed person who gives job-seeking advice to a person considering competing professional offers, or a receptionist who unabashedly offers medical advice to a roomful of doctors.
(M. Kennet, Kibbutz Manara, Israel)

I have a desperate need for a word that conveys the essential meaning of the phrase trailer trash without maligning innocent dwellings.
(K. Cox, Austin, Texas)

Words about the material world. A sizable majority of the words that lexicographers add to our dictionaries are names for things. People just won’t stop inventing things and perceiving old things in new ways. And things need names: blogs, infinity pools, conflict diamonds. A separate issue is commercial products, with their expensively, extensively negotiated and marketed names. Standard dictionaries exclude most product and brand names, but the proportion of “new” words that name things rises even higher if you count preexisting words and phrases that have been turned into brands: Tiger (computer operating system), Magic Hat (beer), Juicy Couture (sportswear), BlackBerry (portable communication device).

And yet it’s relatively rare for one to get requests for coinages to name things. The obvious explanation would be that things already have names. Consider aglets (the tiny plastic wrappers at the ends of shoelaces) and altocumulus undulatus (the clouds in a herringbone sky) and chads (you remember: the little spots of paper that fall off punch cards). There is scarcely a thing so small or ethereal or insignificant or transient that someone somewhere has not named it. Nonetheless, here are two requests:

I seek a word or phrase to describe a cheap plastic thing that is better for a task than its expensive metal counterpart.
(B. Gibson, Concrete, Wash.)

We need a word for food that hasn’t quite gone bad—the things you aren’t sure whether you ought to throw them out.
(A. Bernays and J. Kaplan, Cambridge, Mass.)

Words about tribulations. This is a popular category. Granted, the annoyances that people write to me about tend to be petty—for instance, being terrible at transcribing numbers (if the problem is phone numbers, would that be dialexia?) or finding oneself standing in the supermarket’s slowest line (misalinement?). But just because they’re petty is no reason to suffer them in silence. Somehow, putting a name to what happened—preferably a name no one else has ever heard—can be satisfying. The affliction is special, possibly unique. As in:

My name is Todd, but throughout my life, people—both close to me and mere acquaintances—have incorrectly called me Scott. The people who do this are unrelated to one another. I mentioned this during a luncheon gathering recently, and to my surprise another person at the table claimed a similar thing happens to his wife. I figure this phenomenon must occur with sufficient frequency to warrant a name of its own. Suggestions?”
(S. Nichols [just kidding!—of course he’s T. Nichols], Shorewood, Minn.)

Is there a term for concentrating so hard on not saying the worst possible thing in a situation that it comes out? For instance, greeting a newly mal-coiffed friend: “Your hair!”
(K. Lewin, Henderson, Nev.)

Words about words. The words in this category are undeniably ethereal. Here many old words have fallen into disuse. We as a society would be better off if everyone knew what words like pronoun, adjective, and preposition mean. I believe this because I find it nearly impossible to talk about language and how it works its wonders without employing at least basic grammatical terms. If everyone had these words down, we could move on to complaining that nowadays no one understands the likes of meiosis (“the use of understatement not to deceive, but to enhance the impression on the hearer,” as H. W. Fowler explains in his Modern English Usage) and tmesis (“separation of the parts of a compound word by another word inserted between them”—for instance, un-freaking-believable). But let’s not go there. Plenty of words about words remain to be coined. Here are two requests:

I am looking for a word to describe the deliberate misspelling of words and phrases for marketing purposes. For example, Citibank, Rite-Aid, Kool-Aid, and Krispy Kreme. It drives me crazy!
(M. Harris, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Is there a term for those metaphorical insults like “She’s one sandwich short of a picnic” and “He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer”?
(J. Blum, San Francisco)

Miscellany. Nouns, verbs, and a sprinkling of adjectives: these make up nearly all the words that show up on our culture’s “Most Wanted” poster. Years ago, on the Word Fugitives Web site, I asked for help in inventing a one-word preposition that would mean “in spite of or perhaps because of”; you’d be surprised how often that wordy locution comes up. But, nobody bit, as I recall, and now that Web page itself has gone missing.

Here are a couple of miscellaneous requests that remain:

There ought to be a word, parallel to “gossiping,” for having social conversations about technological things: comparing kinds of new televisions or the merits of digital cameras or cell phones.
(H. Shields, Hamilton, Mass.)

I find it quite astonishing that in English there is no word for the sound produced by a camel. As you know, the camel is the most important animal in the Muslim world. In the midst of so much talk about the clash of civilizations, wouldn’t coining such a word help, albeit in a small way, to create a discourse?”
(M. A. Moftah, Cairo, Egypt)


What are the characteristics of a great recreational coinage? It’s complicated, because just about any syllable or series of syllables could mean just about anything in English. Bumbershoot, gamp, ombrifuge, rundle—these are venerable dictionary words, all of which happen to mean “umbrella.” But are they any more plausible carriers of that meaning than the non-dictionary words rainbrella and dunolly? (Rainbrella was coined by a child, and dunolly was plucked from a map and redefined as “an improvised umbrella” in The Deeper Meaning of Liff.) Furthermore, given that such seeming arbitrariness is more the rule than the exception in English, what are we doing when we rack our brains trying to come up with a brilliant coinage? What sets a keeper apart from a discard?

A number of shortcomings common to discards leap to mind. First is that the coinage is cryptic, opaque, impenetrable. For example, why should culp—a word coined by Gelett Burgess, in Burgess Unabridged—mean “a fond delusion; an imaginary attribute”? Why should nulkin—another of Burgess’s words—mean “the core or inside history of any occurrence”? It’s true that many dictionary words are of unknown origin and that many others reached their current meanings by circuitous, even bizarre, routes. In fact, Burgess’s inventions often mimic dictionary words accurately. But most of them fail to satisfy. Pretend words are more fun when they illuminate the mental processes that brought them into being.

Portmanteau words tend to have this problem licked. It’s not hard to figure out that chortle means “chuckle” and “snort”; that the 1923 word guesstimate is a combination of “guess” and “estimate”; that the more recent Spanglish mingles “Spanish” and “English.” Sometimes, though, two old words in combination look as if they should be pronounced differently from the two words spoken separately—and then the portmanteau word becomes impenetrable. (Because I’ll be finding fault with the words that follow, I’m going to be nice and not identify their coiners.) For instance, the useful modern coinage eyelie, meaning “to pretend not to see someone,” wants to be pronounced “I-lee,” doesn’t it? Hyphenated—eye-lie—it looks inauthentic. But if you try to respell it (eyelye) so that readers will know how to pronounce it, the sense of its origin and what it means will be lost. Discard.

Sometimes, too, a portmanteau word, like arrowneous (“the quality of one who drives against the arrow in a parking lot”), is pronounced so much like one of the words it comes from that it would be incomprehensible in speech. With rare exceptions, discard.Other portmanteaus fall short because they have associations they shouldn’t. For instance, hozone is supposed to mean “the place where one sock in every laundry load disappears”—but unfortunately, nowadays the ho part of that word suggests prostitutes as readily as hosiery.

A similar potential flaw is the intentional irrelevant allusion, which naïve word coiners sometimes mistake irrelevant allusions for a pun. For instance, the responses I got to a request for a word to mean “going through the dirty-clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear” included cull-da-sack. Cull, check: the word wanted has to do with culling, in the sense of selecting. Sack, check: the dirty clothes could just as well be in a laundry bag, or sack, as in a hamper. But what does the overall idea have to do with a cul-de-sac, or dead-end street? Uncheck. Discard. (What would be a better term for ransacking the hamper? How about dry gleaning?)

Some of the least appealing irrelevant allusions are naughty ones. For some reason, no matter what I ask for, I always get plays on premature ejaculation and coitus interruptus. Har-har-har! Similarly unappealing are irrelevant—or even relevant—allusions to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paraplegia, and so forth.

Another common flaw results from a failure to think the word through and craft it well. For instance, I like almost everything about blabrynth to fit the definition “the elaborate maze of voice-mail menus and prompts encountered when phoning businesses or government offices.” But labyrinth, to which blabrynth is obviously meant to be related, has its y in the middle and an i in the last syllable. So shouldn’t blabrynth be blabberinth or blabyrinth? Another example is “petonic, adj.: One who is embarrassed to undress in front of a household pet.” We understand the pet part. But onic? Is that like in catatonic? But that’s not “embarrassed”—that’s immobilized. Furthermore, is petonic an adjective, or does it mean “one who…,” in which case it’s a noun? Discard.

Two other flaws I often notice are nearly each other’s opposites. On the one hand, there are supposed holes in the language that no one has ever stumbled into. Suppose the definition is “not wasteful of parsnips” or “a person who sucks up to plants.” In these cases, who cares how cute the coinage is. Parsnipmonious and photosycophant aren’t words that anyone could conceivably need; they don’t describe the world we live in. On the other hand, there are supposed holes in the language for which perfectly good mainstream words already exist. For instance, lexicaves was coined to mean the indentations on the side of a dictionary, but in reality they are named thumb indexes. Lobsterine was coined to mean the green stuff that oozes from the center of a lobster, but the real name for this is tomalley.


If you avoid all those pitfalls and let inspiration strike, might your coinage eventually enter the mainstream to become a dictionary word? This is a fond hope that many people have for their brainchildren, but, alas, it is now my duty to dash it. The great majority of words coined for fun aren’t real and never will be.

Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society (ADS), has a lot of experience in delivering this particular bad news. Since 1990, Metcalf has overseen the society’s annual selection of “Words of the Year.” It used to bother him that even though the ADS’s members are as well informed about English as anyone anywhere, the words they choose almost invariably lack staying power. Wanting to understand why, Metcalf undertook a study. The result was his 2002 book Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success. “Successful new words,” he wrote, “are alike in ways that promote their success, while unsuccesful new words are alike in ways that promote their failure.”

You might imagine that the main thing successful new words would have in common is that they fill conspicuous gaps in our language, but that’s pretty much beside the point, according to Metcalf. I interviewed him by e-mail, and he wrote me: “To mix a few metaphors: If a newly minted word is bright and shiny, it is almost certain to crash, burn, go up in smoke, and vanish into thin air. Whole volumes of clever words proposed by the cleverest coiners have evaporated in this manner.”

For instance, consider Rich Hall’s five books of sniglets. Metcalf wrote, “These hugely popular books contained ingenious inventions like flirr, ‘a photograph that features the camera operator’s finger in the corner,’ and tacangle, ‘the position of one’s head while biting into a taco.’ Of the hundreds of sniglets invented by Hall, his admirers, and his imitators, the only one that has made its way into a modicum of permanency is sniglet itself.”

Metcalf also brought up a collection of coinages intended seriously: the 2001 book Dictionary of the Future: The Words, Terms and Trends That Define the Way We’ll Live, Work and Talk, by the futurologist Faith Popcorn and the consumer-marketing expert Adam Hanft. “It includes words like GENEology, ‘the study of one’s genetic history,’ and atmosFear, to describe nervousness about pollution and attacks on our air, water, and food,” Metcalf wrote. “Although Popcorn is famous as the inventor of cocooning, the name for a staying-at-home trend she discerned in 1986, since then all the labels she’s affixed to her predictions (right or wrong) have peeled off.”

Hall and Popcorn may be among the world’s most famous word coiners, and yet they’ve had minimal success at getting their words into dictionaries. Metcalf wrote me:

What are we to make of so many failures? It is a sad story, documented in detail in my Predicting New Words. In that book I discuss five qualities that allow a new word to flourish. The most important of the five is “unobtrusiveness.” To become part of our standard vocabulary, a new word has to look old. An example is heads-up—not the long-familiar exclamation of warning, “Heads up!,” or the adjective heads-up meaning “alert” or “competent,” but the noun that means something like “advance information.” Americans have been giving each other this kind of heads-up since the late twentieth century, but only now are the dictionaries beginning to recognize it. It is perfectly camouflaged in the form of its predecessors.

So there you have the Catch-22 of word coining: If a word is clever enough that people will notice it and admire you for coining it, it’s too clever to earn a place in our language for real. Is this bad news for us recreational neologizers? No doubt it will come as a blow to anyone who believes in elves and Tinkerbell. It may also upset the kind of person who, having won a game of Monopoly, is disappointed that the real estate and the money aren’t real and his or hers to keep. (What would we call someone like that? Surely such a person is too rare to deserve a name.)

Not without reason did I say that my subject is coining words just for fun. Even if the lives of our young words are short, long live the pastime—game, diversion, entertainment, addiction—of coining words!


Barbara Wallraff is a former columnist for The Atlantic, a syndicated newspaper columnist, and the author of Word Court and Your Own Words.


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