or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Here's an interesting article about word coinages by Erin McKean in the Boston Globe. (I got there from, as so often is the case, Boingboing). Here's the opening paragraph:

Funner. Impactful. Blowiest. Territorialism. Multifunctionality. Dialoguey. Dancey. Thrifting. Chillaxing. Anonymized. Interestinger. Wackaloon. Updatelette. Noirish. Huger. Domainless. Delegator. Photocentric. Relationshippy. Bestest. Zoomable.

(I don't necessarily agree that some of those word choices are even debatable (who could possibly have a problem with "multifunctionality" or "delegator"?), and others are mere slang, to be forgotten in a couple of years ("chillaxing", the progressive form of "chillax", a portmanteau of "chill [out]" and "relax"). But the rest, whether ugly ("thrifting", verbified from the noun "thrift", is a most unappealing word, to my ears) or charming ("relationshippy", an adjective coined to fill an obvious need), are sensible, natural extensions of the way the language works.)

Go ahead and read it. I'll still be here when you get back.

I'm not sure McKean hates the "I-know-this-isn't-a-word" tactic as much as I do, because I'm not sure that anybody could, but the article makes an important point, one that I've been making for years myself: that part of our birthright as English speakers is that we get to play with the language, that the language, in fact, has evolved in such a way that we are encouraged to do so.

As I said last year,

English is as much as anything a toolkit from which to build language.

And it is, too. It supplies us with a huge assortment of basic parts (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and another massive selection of adjuncts (prefixes, suffixes, prepositions), and, as long as we observe some basic rules, permits us--urges us--to construct whatever words we need. This is the very soul of a living language.

Look at this perfect example, also from Boingboing:

"Enqueue", a rather elegant-looking word, isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary (though it is in some other dictionaries--my spellchecker recognizes it). That doesn't matter. Anybody can see at a glance, even if they've never run across the word before, that it is an assembly of "en-" plus "queue", and that it means "to put into a list of similar items". You can add "en-" (or, where appropriate, "em-" or "in-") to all kinds of nouns and verbs, and it will always mean the same thing: "to put into". To use an example that I just whipped up, "empanic" isn't in any dictionary, but it obviously means "to throw into a state of panic", and I'd use it without hesitation if I thought "panic" wouldn't quite do the trick.

And look up there: I used the word/nonword "verbified", the preterite of "verbify", which isn't in the dictionaries either, but did you even slow down when you ran across it (or when McKean used "verbed" in the same way)? Probably not; you knew exactly what was meant, and that's a perfect example of the inventiveness inherent in the English language and the minds of the people that use it.


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