The fun of new wordsPosted by Stan Carey on February 06, 2012
The attention paid to grammar and style can overshadow something equally significant about language: that it is so often and so naturally playful. In our love of puns and Scrabble, riddles and nonsense, rhyming slang and literary experimentation, we see the instinctive inclination to play with words and letters as though they were an abstract kind of toy for which playtime never ends.
Wordplay, in a word, is fun. It can break ice and break conventions, exercise the mind and stretch the imagination. Language, like physical play, is a medium through which we can indulge our creative instincts. Some people channel this into inventing entire languages; more commonly it manifests in our love of coining and using new words.
In an interesting post last week, Orin Hargraves wrote about fad words such as Tebowing and cyberchondria, describing them as “novel playthings” that we soon abandon “because we know that others will be coming along soon.” In a subsequent post about how words get into the dictionary, Michael Rundell described taking a familiar word and “doing something inventive with it to create a new meaning”, offering the amusing example “meerkatted to attention”.
Portmanteaus are an especially popular type of new word. Here, much of the groundwork has already been laid in the form of two or more existing words. There is a surreal kind of entertainment in seeing words joined improbably together, and when newspaper headlines join in the game, these blends spread all the faster. Any heavy snowfall nowadays is likely to be accompanied by references to snowmageddon, snowpocalypse, blizzaster and so on. There is novelty too in trendy gerunds, such as Tebowing and planking.
The last two links lead you to Macmillan’s online Open Dictionary, which offers readers the opportunity to submit new words and phrases; and to its BuzzWord archive, which looks in detail at some of the neologisms and topical terms that have leaked into more mainstream use. They show how the Internet enables us to share new coinages and verbal inventions faster and with a wider audience than has ever been possible before.
Inventing words and usages comes naturally to us, but getting one into a reputable dictionary is a rare feat. A more realistic ambition is to see a word we created attain modest currency beyond our personal use – or we can simply enjoy it for its own sake. Don’t be put off if someone says your neologism is “not a word”. Unless you’re using language in a formal capacity, it is yours to manipulate as you please. The great lexicographer James Murray wrote that “the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference”, and much of the fun is at the fringe.
One reason why an ingenious coinage such as ‘to meerkat’ is unlikely to catch on is perhaps that it relies on a very specific and ephemeral set of cultural references. Contemporary UK readers of Kate Atkinson’s novel may well have seen both the charming TV documentaries about meerkats and the series of punning TV ads that they spawned; but how likely is it that future speakers and readers of English will be sufficiently familiar with the habits of these engaging but geographically restricted animals?
I’ve always struggled to put my finger on just why I get so upset hearing serious Radio 4 types going on about new coinages, usually rather dismissively. I think you just hit the nail on the head … it’s because they take all the fun out of it!
Liz: That’s true. I don’t know the ads you mention but I’ve become familiar with meerkats through nature documentaries, and not everyone would know what they are. Those who do, I suspect, would generally picture them in their characteristic meerkatting-to-attention stance!
Julie: Sadly, that seems to be the case for some people. It’s not enough for them that language is taken seriously in serious contexts, but any hint of ‘improper’ play with words is to be frowned and harrumphed upon. What are we, children!?
Funny, I’ve never heard of “meercatted” until now but I instantly know what it means.
To non-UKers the humorous-cum-tedious TV commercials are predicated on the punning of the insurance website’s name ‘comparetheMARKET.com’ with ‘comparetheMEERKAT.com’ cue an overly long series of cartoon anthropomorphised meerkat-based nonsense and spin-off promotional merchandise …meh?
Mwncïod: It had the same effect on me: Michael’s post last week was my first encounter with the verb, but it made complete and immediate sense. Thanks for explaining the insurance ads. I don’t think I want to look them up on YouTube!
Out with the prescriptivists and in with the descriptivists – ‘simples!’ It’s the 21st century and we need to dispel the myth circulated by a high-brow few but accepted by many, that language innovation can be discarded as ‘not proper’. Thanks, as ever, for an interesting post Stan.
Hear hear, Kerry. I have encountered the claim that new words and usages are inadvisable by default unless they fill a gap in the language that needs to be filled. But who would adjudicate on this? (And how, and why?) It seems to me just another arbitrary point on which these sticklers can assume authority over others and clamp down on fun.