Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Best New Word

Here is today's thought problem: Why is a word like a pizza?

The answer is because both mean whatever society wants them to mean.

A while back, I waxed philosophical on when a pizza stops being a pizza and starts being something else, the point being that no matter what definition you apply to a pizza, there's something else that fits that definition, something that we'd all agree isn't a pizza. Then I came down on the side of a pizza being anything you'd want it to be.

I have had that same discussion with Some Guy At Work, off and on, here and there, about words, and what words mean, and whether they mean what people think they mean. A chief offender, in our opinion, is ironic, which used to mean -- or is supposed to mean -- an outcome that is the exact opposite of what was intended, an outcome that in some way thwarts the designs of the person whose intentions are at stake. Like what happens in this comic from Subnormality, a comic I only recently discovered and began to love only to have the author go on hiatus for a while.

But thanks to Alanis Morissette, a generation of people grew up thinking "ironic" means "coincidental in an annoying way." That's how they use it, now, and, I suppose, that's what ironic means now.

Because words have to mean what society thinks they mean, don't they? If I'm listening to two teenagers talk, and one teenager says to the other "I didn't study for the test at all last night, and then as it turns out, I got mono and had to stay home from school," and the other says "Ironic," what good would it do me to say that's not ironic at all, that's lucky, there's a difference, you know? They know what they mean, and they don't care what I say it's supposed to mean.

Or take "random," which has come to mean weird for kids these days. Or the word Penultimate, which is Some Guy At Work's pet peeve. Penultimate means "second to last," or it did, to most people who used it, for a long time. But now, more and more people are saying penultimate when they mean ultimate, when they want to say last, but want to say "last, only more special than simply being the last one." People describe the Superbowl as a the penultimate game of the season, and they don't mean It's second to last, they mean it's more than the ultimate game, it's greater than that.

This isn't new, at all, either: I'm reading the Lensman books by E.E. Smith and in the overly-long, kind-of-boring early chapters, Smith writes about how the Arisians plan to create a master race of Lensmen has shown signs of working, but will not payoff until the penultimate result of the breeding program. (Yes, it's kind of creepy in the way it keeps talking about breeding programs and collective minds and the like. I think fascism really sunk into a lot of early science fiction writers a lot more than people realized.)

I don't think Smith meant to say that the Arisians breeding program would reach fruition with the second-to-last result; he likely just wanted to make the ultimate result a little more ultimate. Somehow, saying ultimate has become not enough. If something is the ultimate contest, the ultimate showdown, that seems to be sort of lacking, doesn't it? In an era when potato chips are extreme, "ultimate" becomes commonplace so society decided to make something be ultimate-er, and took a word that was just lying around and not doing anything and used that.

In 20 years, I bet, penultimate will be defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as more than ultimate, a higher order of extreme enjoyment. Unless between now and then people start using it to mean something else entirely.

That's the beauty of language, and particularly of English, which has become a melange of other languages and made-up words and hyphenates and hodgepodges from around the world. English just absorbs words and because its rules make no sense in the first place--

-- as evidenced by the word its, right there: if something belongs to someone, we use an apostrophe to denote possession, so we say things like Obama's plan is to destroy capitalism in order to save it, or Axl Rose's mental state is not good, but when we want to describe things that belong to It, we drop the apostrophe entirely--

because its rules make no sense in the first place, anyone really is free to make up a word or assign a new meaning to a word or absorb a word from another language, and to stop using words that we don't want to use anymore.

As a result of English being, in essence, a nonsensical language cobbled together with duct tape and hope, looking at a list of Words Of The Year from 1906 on can be fascinating. (And, yes, this is what I do instead of working.) Ever been to or heard of a "peace rally?" That was the word of the year...

... for 1919. (Take that, Baby Boomers!)

Just as we're doing with ultimate and penultimate, Society decided that we needed a word that was more exciting, more powerful, than star, and so we began using superstar. In 1925. Who, I wonder, was the first superstar? Who was so big, in 1925, that the word star couldn't adequately describe them?

Pizza became popular, as a word, at least, in 1935, eight years before people talked about passion killers -- what we would call granny panties.

I say frequently that I'm a member of the real Generation X, the children of the baby boomers, and I use that term thinking that Doug Coupland made it up when he wrote his book by that name. But Generation X was the word of the year in 1952. Leave it to the Baby Boomers to try to grab that, too.

Ever tell your kids not to say the F-Word? People began using that in 1970. We got PIN Numbers 6 years later.

From that whole list, nothing jumps out at me more than the fact that OED has declared metatarsal as the word of the year for 2002, saying about that designation:

The term came into general use when the England football captain David Beckham broke one in his left foot just before the World Cup in Japan. In 2006 it was Wayne Rooney's metatarsal fracture which dominated the headlines.

And that's how you can tell it's a primarily British list. Nobody in America had any idea who David Beckham was before he showed up in our magazines in his underwear (or chuddies, the 1995 word of the year) and showed up in our cities with Posh.

And, do you suppose that posh means the same thing to kids who know Posh Spice better than they know about a posh life? "Posh" began being used in the 1930s, more or less, although it's not clear how it began being used. People say it stood, originally, for Port Out, Starboard Home on ship-passage tickets to India, but that's been more or less debunked. It may have been a misprint from a P.G. Wodehouse story reprinting some university slang, but however it got started, posh always meant upscale and fancy... until now, when posh it seems to me is associated more with pouty, over-accessorized, overblown rich people. In the future, will we describe something as posh and mean it negatively? God, I hope so.

So the new words are compiled mostly on a British list, but I think that's appropriate. What better role for England, these days, than keeping tabs on its eponymical language? Not guarding it or keeping it clean -- we're not talking about French, after all -- but simply keeping track of it, declaring what things are and where they came from, keeping in mind that the Uncertainty Principal applies, if it applies to anything, to language, too.

With that in mind, I went looking for the list of new words compiled by the Oxford English Dictionary -- the only dictionary which can tout that it was compiled, originally, by a raving lunatic -- and that's fitting for English, too, I think -- to choose what I would pick as The Best New Word.

Only before I got into reading the whole list of new words, I noticed that there's a frequently asked questions section, and that one of the FAQs is Will you put the word I invented into one of your dictionaries?

And in reading the answer to that question, I learned that when it comes to words, there are people, and then there are people. Or, as the OED says:

All of Oxford's English dictionaries aim to include primarily those words that have genuinely entered the English language. The use of a newly invented word by a single person is not sufficient to merit a dictionary entry (unless the person happens to be, for example, William Shakespeare or Jane Austen).

So if Jane Austen invents a word, it shoots straight into the OED, but if I, or you invent a word, OED will sit on that for a few years or centuries until the Madman approves it.

That's not the only fascinating thing referenced in that answer. The OED people go on to say:

In previous centuries there were dictionaries in which writers listed words which they thought
might be useful, even if they did not have any evidence that anyone had ever actually used them. Often these were derived from Latin or Greek words, like the 'inkhorn' terms which became fashionable in the 16th century.

I would love to see a Dictionary Of Possibly Useful, But Not Yet Used, Words. I have half a mind to create one of my own. But that entry created another question: What's an inkhorn term? And the answer to that is a sad one:

An inkhorn term is an invented word that didn't make it.

Remember the "Island of Misfit Toys?" Somewhere out there in the Multiverse is "The Island Of Inkhorn Terms," populated by

eximious (excellent, distinguished, eminent)
illecebrous (alluring, enticing, attrative)
deruncinate (to weed)


temulent (drunk)

And what I'd like to know is why isn't "eximious" still being used? We could put that in place of the new use of penultimate, so if something is more than ultimate, it is eximious.

Like this:

"Hey, did you see that Superbowl game?"

"No, man, I was too temulent."

"Too bad for you. It was eximious! And the cheerleaders were illecebrous."

The OED goes on, in their answer to the FAQ, that "There is nothing to stop you using an invented word." So you've got their permission, which is good to know. Dictionary Cops won't break down your door if you describe something as blornge.

--Post the Video, Matt!--

-- but OED won't necessarily adopt it. They've got standards, you know. Standards that don't let just anybody go and invent a word and have it in the dictionary. You want your word in the OED? Better be as famous as Jane Austen, or as famous, at least, as R.M.Hare, 1950.

You know R.M. Hare, 1950, right? You have to know him. R.M. Hare is a guiding beacon of hope to people looking to get their words into the OED -- if you're a ...

... what's the word for a person who wants to get a word into the dictionary? There doesn't seem to be one, and saying person who wants to get a word into the dictionary is so awkward. I should just invent a word, right now, for that...

If you're a wordier (pronounced "wer-dee-ey"), R.M. Hare is the Green Light across the Bay for you.

R.M. Hare has been described as a "leading British moral philosopher of the last half of the twentieth century." He did something-or-other about something-or-other, most of which has been lost to history.

What hasn't been lost to history, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is R.M. Hare's invented word:


I bet you use that all the time, don't you? Use it in a sentence, right now. Here's mine:

I had a little blik between my teeth but I flossed it right out.

As it turns out, R.M. Hare would think that I used blik incorrectly; he meant it to mean a point of view. That's how he used it in his argument about something-or-0ther. R.M. Hare described a hypothetical lunatic (not, apparently, the one who wrote the first OED) who had a hypothetical belief that all the dons at Oxford wanted to kill him. Then he said this:

However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same [to believe that dons are trying to kill him]. Now we say that such a person is deluded.... But it does not follow that there is no difference between what he thinks about dons and what most of us think about them-otherwise we should not call him a lunatic and ourselves sane, and dons would have no reason to feel uneasy about his presence in Oxford.

Let us call that, in which we differ from this lunatic, our respective bliks . He has an insane blik about dons; we have a sane one.

And the word blik entered the English language and the OED and has been there, presumably entirely unused, since then.

Other words deemed worthy of entry into OED's hallowed halls? Vril, coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Vril doesn't mean, as you would otherwise guess, a dark and stormy night. It means a tremendous magical force wielded by people. It appeared in Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Coming Race.

(Did you know that Bulwer-Lytton was the guy who came up with the phrase the pen is mightier than the sword? I didn't, until today.)

I guess the point is that we should not be afraid of changing meanings of words or of using new words, and even inventing words ourselves -- we've got permission to do just that from the OED, remember -- and using new words and inventing new words might be just the priming the pump of entertainment and art needs to get going on making new stuff, so that 9 million people won't accidentally see Fast & Furious in one weekend.

To help that along, then, I've not only invented my own word, above, but I'm going to do what I can to popularize one of the newer words that OED let in. Sure, it doesn't have the heft and philosophical bulk of a blik or a vril, but I think this Best New Word can more than hold its own in our modern world, and so it is with great pride that I nominate TBOE's Best New Word and urge you all to use it, as often as possible, in conversation today:


(It's a Scottish word for buttocks.)

Related: Here's that essay on Pizzas & their toppings.

This theory drove Some Guy At Work nuts. Probably still does.

1 comment:

Husbands Anonymous said...

I can attest that a pizza with vienna sausage and pie apples is no longer a pizza. Oddly, though, the sushi pizza worked.
It is good to coin new words- I often do it instead of swearing at the children.