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Get your paddles off my honk!

© CorbisAs a freelance editor and mother of two, I don’t get out much. Sad, but true – I’m usually tucked up in a cubby-hole with my laptop and dictionaries, or performing my motherly duties (for the uninitiated that currently includes sandwich making, a taxi service and washing boxer shorts!). Imagine my delight then when I discover that I have the perfect excuse for a night out – there’s a comedian in town whose entire act is based on, wait for it, neologisms! Yep, in frenzied excitement, I hurriedly buy a ticket, and convince my unsuspecting lexicographer mate Lucy to do the same – “cardiganed old duffers”, we are not!

Clutching our halves of lager we spend an hour and a half being entertained by someone who is as passionate about words as we are, though, unlike us, he’s able to turn them into some kind of joke (correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that my and Lucy’s entries in assorted learner’s dictionaries aren’t exactly laugh-out-loud material …). The comedian in question is one Alex Horne, word lover and self-described ‘verbal gardener’. Now this is where it gets interesting. I’ve spent much of my professional life describing words, and through my work on neologisms, have unwittingly breathed life into many new words and phrases, but never once has it occurred to me to actually come up with the goods myself – an ‘inventor’ of new words? I don’t think so … Alex however declares an ambition to follow in the footsteps of the Earl of Sandwich and Beyoncé (coiner of bootylicious, that well-known adjective) and get words of his own invention into the dictionary. He intends to do this by planting linguistic ‘seeds’, understanding that the only way to make them grow into fully-fledged lexical items is by exposure. He is aided by a number of anonymous individuals who have influence in media circles and thereby the opportunity to engage in a bit of lexical espionage or, to continue with Alex’s own metaphor – ‘fertilisation’.

Of course by now you’re dying to know what these words are, so I won’t keep you waiting any longer – here are my personal favourites:

honk noun money, especially cash
noun hand
noun a fifty pence piece
adjective (euphemism) fat
mental safari
noun 1. when someone goes mad for a few moments
2. a series of rash acts

What’s interesting about all these is that Alex has observed the first rule of successful neologising – new expressions are much more likely to survive if they’re based on words that we recognise because they already exist. Proof of this came in majestic form during Alex’s appearance on Countdown, a UK TV-show based on a word game. From a series of randomly selected letters, contestants have one minute to come up with the longest word. Imagine Alex’s excitement when, amongst one of such random groups of letters, appear ‘h’, ‘o’, ‘n’ and ,’k’. When asked for his offering, Alex quite clearly and audibly declares “honk, meaning money”, the latter part of his statement escaping the ears of lexicography professionals in the hallowed “dictionary corner”, who promptly verify it as a valid word! The result is a major coup for Alex, who has thereby given a significant ‘watering’ to one of his linguistic seeds.

Other attempts to nurture Alex’s lexical saplings have been less successful, such as his two-hour edit of the Wikipedia entry for hand, in which all references were replaced by paddle. The source of temporary confusion to unsuspecting school children across the globe, Alex caused consternation on the part of Wikipedia moderators who warned him not to indulge in further lexical ‘vandalism’.  Smack handies.

I don’t want to be the voice of doom, but Alex mate, I personally think you’re fighting a losing battle with paddle as a replacement for hand. You’re far more likely to succeed with words which clearly fill a lexical gap – now demi for instance, that could be quite useful when I need change for a parking meter. As a bit of a Ginster’s Cornish-pasty-eating porker myself, I particularly like your euphemistic use of honest (to be in on the joke, observe “Real Honest Food” a slogan in Ginster’s advertising campaign). And hey, if Tom Cruise can jump the couch, there’s no reason why you can’t go on a mental safari!

If anyone out there would like to join in the fun, check out Alex’s website. You might like to scatter a few verbal seeds yourself – you’d be helping to expand the English lexicon and, after all, it doesn’t cost any honk.

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Kerry Maxwell


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