Corpus fu, mismarriedly, and other neologisms

In a comment here last month I used the phrase corpus fu, which I subsequently defined as follows:

Corpus fu (n.) Skill or mastery in the use of text corpora.* By analogy with Google fu, from Kung fu.

Ian Preston said there was “all kinds of nerd-fu” out there, and he’s right. Given the productiveness of the X fu formula, I was surprised to find no older instances of corpus fu online. I expect the phrase has been used in unrecorded speech, but this post might give it a boost.

I like making up whimsical words and phrases. Often they appear as wordplay in conversation and are promptly forgotten, but a few I remember. Raiding my Twitter archives, I found bemused — not a new word but a new usage, which I’m voting Least Likely To Succeed:

On Google+ last week, Kory Stamper shared the curious adverb marriedly (“in the manner of a married couple; as if married”). I took to adding prefixes and ended up with mismarriedly (“in the manner of a mismarried couple; as if mismarried”, where mismarried = unsuitably married).

I was just playing around, but it turned out that mismarriedly had only a handful of results on Google, each of which was a computer-generated inflection. So Kory suggested (“Quick!”) that I use it in a sentence, and this was it:

The couple mismarriedly struggled on, doomed to a life of intimate unhappiness.

Had I given it more thought, I might’ve written something a shade subtler, like “…resigned to a life of intimate dissatisfaction”. But it’ll do. Mismarriedly is unusual for me in that it’s not a silly or frivolous coinage. It isn’t very useful, either — the world has done fine without it for long enough — but who knows, maybe someone will put it to practical use.

Another coinage I’m adopting is urbigator (urban + alligator?), meaning “any large earth-moving or digging vehicle”. This is one of several new words in Erin McKean’s recent article on neologisms in the Boston Globe. I was also struck by thelcome, which blends thank you and you’re welcome. Would it be handy to have a word like this in common parlance?

Erin explains why some new words are more likely to take off than others. She says Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society

gives five factors by which to judge the success of a new word: what he calls the FUDGE scale. FUDGE stands for “frequency of use” (more use means a higher chance of success), “unobtrusiveness” (is it too jokey?), “diversity of users and situations” (is it used by a lot of different people?), “generation of other forms and meanings” (can you verb it?), and “endurance of the concept.”

All of which suggests that corpus fu, mismarriedly and my bemused are not destined for world domination. But who knows.

What do you think of thelcome and company? Do you invent words, or are there little-known words whose circulation you’d like to increase? I’d love to hear about them.

Update: Via a comment from Ben Zimmer on Language Hat: two excellent articles that trace the shifting meaning of bemused: “We are not bemused”, by Jan Freeman, and “Perplexed by ‘Nonplussed’ and ‘Bemused'”, by Ben himself.


* By text corpora I mean structured linguistic data such as the sets created by Mark Davies (also under “Language links” in the blogroll).

16 Responses to Corpus fu, mismarriedly, and other neologisms

  1. languagehat says:

    Since “bemused” is now skunked and people are confused about what it means

    Man, I’m getting old. I had no idea there was any problem with this word until I looked it up just now in the brand new fifth edition of AHD and discovered lots of people now use it to mean ‘amused.’ I know it’s just language change at work, and I’m cool with that, but I don’t like being so oblivious to it.

  2. johnwcowan says:

    “I think I’m going to be able to use ‘opium’ in a sentence. I opium mother is feeling better. No, I guess I’m not, either.”

         —Dorothy Parker (in a Constant Reader book review)

    In an email thread, the Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski complained that English had an annoying lexical gap: there is no conventional reply for a guest to make when the host says Welcome. Now this means ‘[It is] well [that you have] come’, a calque of the French bien venue, and the conventional Bulgarian expression means the same. Indeed, similar expressions are found throughout Europe and the Middle East, all the way to Hebrew barukh haba (YHWH) ‘blessed [is he that] comes ([in the name of] the Lord)’, familiar to anglophones from the King James Version.

    Throughout the Eastern range of the expression, however, the guest’s reply is conventionalized, and it takes the form “It is well that you are (or, blessed is he that is) found”, viz. here in this house. So I proposed that the English lexical gap be filled with welfound, to be pronounced WELL-fund. Needless to say, the FUDGE factor of this word is pretty low!

    (The Old English wilcuma shows that welcome once had a slightly different form and etymology, meaning ‘willed comers’, those whose coming is pleasurable or desirable. Thus, when Beowulf’s party leaves Denmark, the coast-guard says in lines 1894-95 that on their return home they will be wilcuman to the Geatish people, which can be read either as ‘willed comers’ or as ‘welcome’. So the modern form is not quite a calque, but rather the reshaping of an existing word into a calque. The German version Willkommen shows the original etymology in its first syllable as well.)

  3. Stan says:

    LH: I like the AHD’s clarifying note that people sometimes use bemused to mean amused “especially when finding something wryly funny”. I don’t know when I first noticed the usage, but I’m surprised I don’t see it more often: it’s an immediately understandable reanalysis.

    John, you spoil me with these comments. Thank you. I was aware of the basic etymology of welcome but I knew none of its detail or the parallel with the Hebrew expression. Interesting too that there is a conventional reply to Welcome in other languages and that English lacks it — though thank you typically fills the gap. I’ll try to remember to use Welfound (and to explain it) the next time I am verbally welcomed into a home!

  4. As I mentioned to Kory Stamper on Twitter last summer after her use of the term “Google fu,” I wonder if such words are independent inventions from “kung fu” or if they were inspired by the (U.S.) syndicated B-movie newspaper reviews of humorist Joe Bob Briggs in the mid-1980s (

    Every week for several years at least, some cult/schlock movie was reviewed and finally summarized with a list including the body count and “chainsaw fu” or “pool cue fu” or any number of other amusing/gruesome “-fu.”

    As for “thelcome,” I’ll have to recuse myself, as that’s my word. I’m glad you found it interesting.

  5. korystamper says:

    Hey, “intimate unhappiness” is good! Besides, it’s now in the written record, so it’s too late for do-overs.

    And Kevin, I still have a note out to our daters asking them to check for earlier instances of “-fu.” If I couldn’t find anything in the files, though, then I think you nailed that one.

  6. Stan says:

    languageandhumor: That’s a good question. I didn’t know about Briggs’s reviews. Whether he was directly responsible for Google fu and co. may be impossible to discover, but he surely helped to spread the -fu habit.

    Thelcome is a good coinage. Omitting spoonerisms, nonsense text and Thelma-related usages, a quick search shows just a handful of independent examples online, the oldest of which is from 2003. (More recently here and here.)

    Kory: I have softened towards intimate unhappiness but I’m still (intimately) dissatisfied with doomed. Always with the melodrama!

  7. Kory: Thanks. Briggs doesn’t have original dates on his online archive of reviews, but the 1984 “Ice Pirates” is said to be “in the drive-ins now” and has “Human kung fu, robot fu, bimbo fu.”

    I see he also has a definition of “fu”:

    “The original ‘kung fu’ resulted in the all-purpose suffix, ‘Fu,’ meaning ‘an act of senseless or random violence, usually inflicted on the viewer.'”

    Stan: Thanks for the citations. It’s too bad I made the mistake of using “thelcome” orally that first time in 1991.


  8. Cyranette says:

    I make up words all the time, but I seldom retain them. One I use often, however, is “lunner,” a time to eat between lunch and dinner.

  9. Stan says:

    Cyranette: I’m surprised I haven’t encountered that already, given the popularity of brunch.

  10. great post stan. best I’ve ever managed is “omnimpotent”, being that feeling that you have no power over absolutely everything in your world. It is not about being a “victim”, but rather describes the feeling of loss of control (i.e it doesn’t lead to a state of victimhood). Perhaps when one has a severe hangover, the kids are looking to play and work is calling you to come in on a Sunday… or when you try to provide an example, but can’t seem to come up with something suitably broad to illustrate your point.

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks, Bren! I like omnimpotent and the example you provide. But by “no power over absolutely everything”, do you mean “no power over absolutely anything”? It’s a little ambiguous.

    • Hi Stan – thanks! And I guess I intended to be somewhat ambiguous, so that more people might use the term, whether correctly or not. Were it to be dispatched mismarriedly, I would not have the corpus fu to complain or question it.

      Much like children, these new words can be raised one way, but once they go out into the world, who knows how they’ll act?

      But, yes – no power over absolutely anything. The “everything” intends to include things one may not perceive or imagine, as well as any of those things that one might encounter. I’ve been reading some William Carlos Williams recently, so I guess my definition included some deliberate “vaguening” (a term I think Beckett used to describe the process of editing/rewriting some own text – but where exactly I read/heard this is lost in the mist of my mind).

  12. Stan says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Bren. The analogy with children is well put. We could also compare the way people try to control both children and words beyond what is reasonable or worthwhile, but that might be stretching it.

  13. i just love neologisms, but these words i would rather call occasional words, as i don’t think they are fixed in the dictionaries yet. And from the comments i like “lunner”, yes, we do eat in-between lunch and dinner, so it’s reasonable to have the word like this!

  14. […] Erin McKean’s article came out, I was happy to see thelcome mentioned on Stan Carey’s language blog. He’s in Ireland, so the march toward worldwide thelcome-acceptance proceeds apace. (Next […]

  15. Stan says:

    English Editing: A new word or phrase or usage doesn’t have to appear in a dictionary to be called a neologism. The ones I’ve mentioned are neologisms; you may call them what you like.

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