Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making up words

Barbara Wallraff calls it "recreational word coining," that practice of making up new words just for fun. It sounds like something that could use a new word.

I suspect that most of us play this game whether we realize it or not, sometimes just making up new words on the spot. Families often have their own unique words for things that you won't find in any dictionary. When I tell my wife I am going rest-roaming, she knows I am off in search of a restroom in an unfamiliar restaurant, mall or whatever. I have never heard anyone else use that word and never expect to.

Several books have been dedicated to recreational word coining, including Wallraff's own Word Fugitives. In a column she writes for The Atlantic Monthly, she asks readers to suggest new words for something that doesn't have a word but should. Her book collects some of the best suggestions.

Shouldn't there be a word for choosing the slowest-moving line in a grocery store or fast-food restaurant? Among the best suggestions are misqueue and misalinement. The trouble is we already have the words miscue and misalignment. The suggested words are clever puns, but they probably have no staying power as words.

How about a word to describe trying to avoid someone, like an ex-spouse, who happens to be in the same room? Among the suggestions are snear miss, snubterfuge and can't-standoffish. Again clever puns and not much else.

Similarly, fridgety was suggested as a word to describe when you repeatedly look into the refrigerator, more because of restlessness than hunger. Numblers seems like a good term for people who recite their phone numbers so quickly on answering machines that you can't hope to remember them. And virtuecrat nicely describes those people, in the words of Joseph Eptein who coined it, "whose sense of their own high virtue derives from their nauseatingly enlightened political opinions." Don't you know such people?

Such words are amusing, but will they ever find their way into a dictionary? Sometimes they do, as with scofflaw and couch potato, but usually they don't. To gain wide acceptance, new words must fill a need and must be repeated often enough that others will remember them and use them themselves. According to Allan Metcalf, author of Predicting New Words, new words should look old. They should give the impression they've been around for awhile, but we just haven't noticed them. Some words like snubterfuge and fridgety are just too clever. We couldn't have missed them.

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