October 14, 2015

On Fleek: Adding Words To The Popular Lexiculture

By Elizabeth Weinstein

Does every word — no matter how nonsensical or faddish — deserve a spot in the dictionary?  The wordsmiths at Wordnik.com certainly think so, and they’re using funds from a successful Kickstarter campaign to hunt down one million words they say are “missing” from more traditional dictionaries.

Erin McKean, founder of the web site and a former editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, says she takes an egalitarian approach to words. Every word, she says, should be “lookupable,” and with data on more than 8 million words and counting on Wordnik, she’s well on her way to making that a reality — online at least.

“Would you like someone to tell you what words you can and can’t use?  No, you’d totally rebel,” McKean says. “So if someone is curious about a word they should have a place to look at it.”

While new words can seemingly spread like wildfire (who can forget Stephen Colbert’s use of “truthiness” in his 2005 Colbert Report debut), getting them to stick around after they’re coined can be more challenging says author and linguist Paul Dickson.  In his 2014 book, “Authorisms,” Dickson explores the world of literary neologisms –new words, phrases and names coined by authors or journalists. Dickson points to William Shakespeare as a writer who introduced many new words to the English language — “bump,” “critical,” and “hurry” probably sound familiar to you — but struck out with others. “Smilet,” anyone?

From “missing” words still catching on in the popular lexicon, to well-established “authorisms,” McKean and Dickson share their list of words we all know – or may know soon—and their origins.

Erin McKean’s “Missing” Words

Condemnathon: “I assumed that participating in the “condemnathons” —monthly rituals where Muslims are asked to vociferously condemn acts committed by violent extremists they’ve never met on continents they’ve never visited — would abate anti-Muslim fears.” (New York Times)

Deadnaming: “Yet this week has already brought numerous lessons in “deadnaming”—the term used in the trans community for calling a trans person by our assigned name at birth.” (Fusion)

Intimifaving: “I am patenting a new method called “intimifaving” which is when you fave someone’s subtweet of you to let them know you’re watching.” (The Awl)

Masocore: “There is a tradition of such super-difficult games, sometimes called masocore among the videogame-savvy. Masocore games are normally characterized by trial-and-error gameplay, but split up into levels or areas to create a sense of overall progress.” (The Atlantic)

Reifungsroman: “We are on the cusp of the age of the reifungsroman—the literary scholar Barbara Frey Waxman’s term for the “novel of ripening.” (New Yorker)

Paul Dickson’s “Authorisms”

Banana Republic: A politically unstable, undemocratic and tropical nation whose economy is largely dependent on the export of a single limited-resource product, such as a fruit or a mineral. The pejorative term was coined by O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) in his 1904 collection of short stories entitled “Cabbages and Kings.”

Beatnik: was created by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in his column of April 2, 1958 about a party for “50 beatniks.” Caen was later quoted, “I coined the word ‘beatnik’ simply because Russia’s Sputnik satellite was aloft at the time and the word popped out.”

Bedazzled: To be irresistibly enchanted, dazed or pleased. A word which Shakespeare debuts in “The Taming of the Shrew,” Act IV, Scene V: “Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes, that have been so bedazzled with the sun that everything I look on seemeth green.” Several of the websites which track the Bard’s word have, in recent years, commented on the fact that a commercial product called The Bedazzler had come on the market and was usurping some of the dazzle from this word. The Bedazzler is a plastic device used to attach rhinestones to blue jeans, baseball caps and other garments. One site commented: “A word first used to describe the particular gleam of sunlight is now used to sell rhinestone-embellished jeans.”

Catch-22: The working title for Joseph Heller’s modern classic novel about the mindlessness of war was “Catch-18,” a reference to a military regulation that keeps the pilots in the story flying one suicidal mission after another. The only way to be excused from flying such missions is to be declared insane, but asking to be excused for the reason of insanity is proof of a rational mind and bars being excused. Shortly before the appearance of the book in 1961, Leon Uris’s bestselling novel “Mila 18” was published. To avoid numerical confusion, Heller and his editor decided to change “Catch-18” to “Catch-22.” The choice turned out to be both fortunate and fortuitous as the 22 more rhythmically and symbolically captures the double duplicity of both the military regulation itself and the bizarre world that Heller shapes in the novel. (“‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22’,” observes Yossarian. ‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agrees.”) During the more-than half century since its literary birth, “catch-22,” generally lower-cased, has come to mean any predicament in which we are caught coming and going, and in which the very nature of the problem denies and defies its solution.

Cyberspace: Novelist William Gibson invented this word in a 1982 short story, but it became popular after the publication of his sci-fi novel “Neuromancer” in 1984. He described cyberspace as “a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system.”


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