Showing posts with label neologisms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neologisms. Show all posts

04 December 2012

Growing the Language


by Dale C. Andrews

Barney and Clyde, The Washington Post, December 1, 2012
Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
                                      The Bells, First Stanza
                                      Edgar Allan Poe

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.
                                      Warren G. Harding

    So, you are doubtless wondering, what exactly does Edgar Allan Poe have in common with Warren G. Harding?  The italicized words set forth above are the clues – both “tintinnabulation” and “normalcy” basically did not exist until used by Poe and Harding, respectively.  Poe’s made up word, derived from the Latin word for "bell", tintinnabulum, entered the English language largely because it fit Poe’s pentameter.  Harding’s invention, or at the least popularization, of the word “normalcy” is predictably baser, deriving from the existing word “normality” and Harding’s political aspirations, which required a less high-falluting word to garner the support of the voting public. 

    These two words eventually gained entry to most dictionaries, but prior to besting that bar they were “sniglets.”  “Sniglet” is itself a made-up word, and one that, I will admit, I had not encountered until I heard a weatherman in Washington, D.C. use it several weeks ago.  A sniglet is defined (simply) by the Urban Dictionary as a word that should be in the dictionary but isn't.  The “should” part of this may be a bit generous – the word “irregardless,” for example, an illegitimate progeny of “regardless” and “irrespective,” qualifies as a sniglet and is used often.  At least for me it continues to grate.  (With apologies to my Tuesday partner in crime Mr. Dean, my wife and I had a law school professor who used to scratch through "irregardless" whenever it appeared in a paper or exam and write in the margin “this is only a word in New Jersey!”)

    As noted, “sniglet” is itself a "sniglet".  The word was invented by Richard Hall, a comedian and actor in the 1960s.  Hall published several books of sniglets and also, for a time, had a newspaper column devoted to these wannabe words.  While Hall coined the word sniglet, the concept was previously more broadly encompassed by the word “neologism,” which encompasses not only a newly coined word or phrase, but also a newly offered idea or theory.  Some skips and jumps through the internet reveal that neologisms or sniglets often make their assault into accepted speech from the springboard of literature.  Science Fiction, for example, has reportedly given us the then-new words “laser,” (Light Amplification through Stimulated Emissions of Radiation) in 1960, and “robotics” in 1941.  (Thank you, Mr. Asimov).  Other then-new additions to the language that sprang from literature include “nymphet,” from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, “Orwellian,” from the themes set forth in George Orwell’s 1984.  And as descriptive nouns we have a “Scrooge,” a “Pollyanna,” someone who is “Quixotic” as well as those who are “Sadistic,” (derived from the practices of the Marquis de Sade). 

    Commenting on the need for the English language to fluidly grow, Thomas Jefferson stated the following in an 1831 letter: 
I am no friend, therefore, to what is called Purism, but a   zealous one to the Neology . . . .    The new circumstance under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed; so will a West-Indian and Asiatic, as a Scotch and an Irish are already formed.

So, it is often we, the writers, who are either responsible for all of this or, at the very least, carry the ball by repeating, in dialog, that which we hear around us.  Print adds legitimacy.

    As we approach 2013 it is interesting to look at previously aspiring words and phrases that “passed their finals” and gained admittance  into the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2012.  Newly legitimized words for 2012 include:
  • Man-cave
  • Sexting (Alexander Graham Bell must be rolling in his grave)
  • Earworm (denoting a song you can’t get out of your head)
  • Bucket List
  • Energy Drink
  • Aha Moment
  • Game Changer
  • F-Bomb (as in “Dropping the F-Bomb”)
  • Gastropub
  • Mash-up (Something created by combining items from two or more sources).
    Although writers can nudge the language in new directions, as the foregoing discussion and examples illustrate, there are some places that the language simply will not allow itself to go.  Thus, while Lewis Carroll is discussed prominently as a contributor of sniglets or neologisms, more often than not Carroll’s imagination proved too great for the more conservative tastes of evolving language.  No greater example of this exists than his poem Jabberwocky from Through the Looking Glass, composed almost completely of substantive words that are still aspiring to existence but never made it.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.