Corpus fu, mismarriedly, and other neologisms

January 24, 2012

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.

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