‘Ineptnorant’ and other neologifications

September 26, 2013

Ralph Keyes has an enjoyable essay on neologisms at the American Scholar, analysing the factors in their success or failure and sharing some facts surprising to me, such as that Thomas Jefferson coined indescribable and neologize, and that negawatt began life as a typo – showing how happenstance and error are underacknowledged sources of new words.

He says one reason fanciful coinages catch on is that their inventors think them “so absurd that no one will adopt them, little realizing that this is just the type of neologism we covet”. Duly encouraged, I set to work when recently asked if there’s an adjective for when someone “can’t do [something,] therefore [doesn’t] understand when it’s done properly and when it’s not”.

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Zombie nouns, words of the year, and serendipity

February 4, 2013

Time to report on my postings at Macmillan Dictionary Blog since the year turned. I have three new posts up. The first, Nominalisation and zombification, looks at a grammatical process often cited as a hindrance to good prose:

Nominalisation, with or without adding an affix, is very common in English, and is a prolific source of new vocabulary. Yet it has a bad reputation in writing circles. As well as the traditional grumbling about words being used in novel ways or created unnecessarily, there is also a popular belief that nominalisation leads to weak and wordy prose. In the New York Times last year, Helen Sword warned writers about what she calls zombie nouns that “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”.

Does Sword have a point? I look at the arguments and try to separate the sense from the scapegoating.

Next up is Mansplaining the new-word-pocalypse, in which I review the American Dialect Society’s recent Word of the Year poll, assess trends and likely keepers and offer some subjective thoughts on the winners and also-rans in the various categories:

Most readers will recognise some nominated terms and be less familiar with others. Gate lice (“airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board”), voted Most Creative, was new to me but made immediate visual sense. Still, I’d have liked to see mansplaining win (“a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience”). It’s not especially creative – just another man-word, really – but it is very useful and has inspired several variations, such as whitesplaining, geeksplaining, and others based specifically on people’s names.

The comments include some fun discussion of various man- and -splaining words.

My latest article, just up today, is In praise of serendipity – the much-loved word and the equally treasured experience. It includes a note on etymology:

We have Horace Walpole to thank for this popular but peculiar word. In a letter he wrote in 1754, Walpole describes looking through an old book at random and finding some fact of significance to his studies – a discovery, he says, “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

Walpole based the word on Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, as in the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. The eponymous princes, while travelling, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. Serendip comes from Arabic Sarandīb, ultimately from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ, meaning island (dvīpaḥ) of the Sri Lankan people.

I also wonder whether serendipity is threatened by the pattern of bookstores and dictionaries going increasingly online-only.

Your comments here or at Macmillan Dictionary are very welcome. For older articles, visit the archive.

Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus

October 25, 2012

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts now follow.

Dictionary signals vs. noise looks at the business of crowd-sourcing in dictionary-making. (Crowd-sourcing means outsourcing a task to the general public or another unspecified group.) Some recent discussion about this might give the impression that the field of lexicography is destined for an Urban Dictionary–style makeover. This won’t happen.

It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done to varying degrees.

Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain scepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.

For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.


Lesser spotted portmanteau words briefly introduces the history and structure of portmanteau words, aka blends, before coining a few fanciful examples (which turned out to be unoriginal, but anyway):

Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.

Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary.

The post was prompted by a unusual sense of portmanteau word which I encountered in an old book on Beethoven. You can find out about that – and ponder whether banoffee pie has peaked – at the original post.

Comments here or there are welcome, and if you’re new to this and inclined to read more, there’s always my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

Slang ‘helmer’ and the fun of new words

March 6, 2012

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, The fun of new words considers the pleasure we get from playing with words, letters and language, with special focus on neologisms:

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. . . .

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. [more]

Next, Helmer at the helm sketches the development of helm from its origin as a nautical term to later senses that have nothing directly to do with steering a ship:

Inevitably, the word has developed metaphorical uses. At the helm means in charge, and you can be at the helm of a government, business, sports team, film production, and so on. Words such as steer, saddle, and pilot have broadened similarly, from navigation and transport to more figurative senses: a steering group could be in the saddle guiding the direction of a pilot project. . . .

I’m especially taken by a Hollywood slang usage:

Helmer in particular interests me. Most commonly it appears as a surname, but in US English it has become a synonym for film (or TV) director. I see this usage especially in film reviews and reporting, for example in the Hollywood Reporter (“the helmer’s 1978 horror classic”) and Variety (“the helmer switches to color”).

Helmer appears in Variety‘s slanguage dictionary, which contains what Julian Gough, in a comment, describes as “an internally consistent version of English that reads like the snappy, jazzy dialogue in a Howard Hawks script”.

You can read the rest here, or browse my archive of Macmillan articles.

Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

June 16, 2011

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot. – James Joyce

Ezra Pound was tirelessly interested in, and supportive of, original and imaginative literature, but with Finnegans Wake he reached his limit, complaining to Joyce that “Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.”

He dubbed it Joyce in Regress, a pun on Work in Progress, as FW was known before publication. Unfair, perhaps, but we can recast the charge of regress as an evocation of return rather than retrogression and degeneration. Where Ulysses was Joyce’s daytime novel, the Wake was his work of the night and its sleeping mind – a restorative regression into which we all slide cyclically, more or less.

Every night we fall out of the familiar world, and every day we awake from our adventures with little or no recollection of what has gone on. Yet in sleep we are just as authentically ourselves; guilty and guileless, paralysed, periodically telling ourselves stories in dream-fragments of promiscuous trivia and significance that take some unravelling. A bit like Finnegans Wake. To the American writer Max Eastman, Joyce said:

In writing of the night, I really could not . . . use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes, of course everything will be clear again. I’ll give them back their language. . . . I’m not destroying it for good!

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Selfcation: the self-catering vacation

September 3, 2010

The portmanteau word staycation is here to stay, it seems. Even in Ireland, where we say holiday(s) rather than vacation, staycation (stay + vacation) has established its niche sense of a holiday at home, near home, or at least somewhere on the island. It still sounds new or awkward to some people, but it’s been around a while: Word Spy has a citation from 2003, while Ben Zimmer found a hyphenated use from May 1999.

A daycation is similar, but happens in one day; see Macmillan Dictionary’s article for more, including greycation and naycation. This week’s Galway Advertiser has a related blend that’s new to me: selfcation, a self-catering holiday or self-catering vacation, presumably formed by combining self-catering with vacation (with a neatly overlapping /keː/).

Out of context, you’d be forgiven for thinking a selfcation might mean a holiday from oneself (cf. me-cation, a holiday for oneself), but the text makes its meaning clear. Here’s selfcation used in the article ‘Ten ways to enjoy a staycation in Ireland’:

Why not go on a selfcation and hit the sunny south east where there is a wide range of self-catering accommodation perfect for families who want to relax in the comfort of a home away from home. [surrounding text]

Maybe selfcation has been doing the rounds in travel writing, but this is the first time I’ve come across it, and it appears to be a recent coinage. Not only is there no entry at the Urban Dictionary — not yet, anyway — but there’s hardly any mention of selfcation anywhere online. Most of Google’s results for selfcation relate to cations, positively charged chemical ions (from Greek kata, down, + ions).

There’s a reference here (2001) to ‘selfcated flats’, but I don’t think this has anything directly to do with vacation or selfcation; it’s just a misspelling of, or shorthand for, selfcatered, i.e. self-catering:

Have you heard selfcation before? What do you think of it? Is it superfluous, unsightly, unobjectionable, useful, welcome?

Note: This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

Is ‘irregardless’ a word?

June 24, 2008

Although irregardless has been in use since the early 20C, it remains non-standard and widely censured. It is undeniably a word, but using it in formal contexts (and many informal ones) is likely to invoke criticism and even scorn. The word seems to have emerged as a combination — some would say mutant hybrid — of regardless and irrespective.

Lewis Carroll used the term portmanteau to describe a neologism with “two meanings packed up into one word”; his nonsense verse Jabberwocky (pictured) is full of them. Portmanteau is itself a portmanteau word formed from the French words porter (“to carry”) and manteau (“cloak”). Linguists sometimes call them blends. Some disappear without trace, some retain limited use, and some become standard. Success doesn’t depend on euphony, as the popularity of stagflation demonstrates.

Here’s a list of portmanteau words, including some standard terms and some neologisms:

jabberwockybanoffee (banana + toffee)

biopic (biographical + picture)
Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood)
breathalyser (breath + analyser)
brunch (breakfast + lunch)
camcorder (camera + recorder)
chortle (chuckle + snort)
cremains (cremated + remains)
cyborg (cybernetic + organism)
docudrama (documentary + drama)
electrocute (electricity + execute)
Franglais (Français + Anglais)
malware (malicious + software)
mockumentary (mock + documentary)
multiplex (multiple + complex)
Oxbridge (Oxford + Cambridge)
paratroops (parachute + troops)
podcast (iPod + broadcast)
smog (smoke + fog)
stagflation (stagnation + inflation)
telethon (telephone + marathon)
transistor (transfer + resistor)
travelogue (travel + monologue)
Wikipedia (wiki + encyclopedia)

[image source]


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