Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Words; dog-nails for meaning

Image of a chained Tibetan guard dog (a Tibetan Mastiff), with the customary Tibetan metal-studded, red cloth collar, and vicious bark of its breed.
Dear Gentle Reader,

The other day Pattinase wrote a post about wordsmithing. 

Pattinase commented on William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) contributions to English and asked if readers had created their own words or if there were ideas that needed words to be created for them. She also questioned if fewer words (in English) were needed in the past.

As an initial aside, when I think wordsmith and creator of words, I think of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400). 

Chaucer was the father of English literature and a prolific progenitor of words due to the emergence of English as both the vernacular language and the official language of England during his professional lifetime.  

Part of Chaucer's profligate creation of words was due to his serendipitous timing on the English literary scene; before him, English literature did not exist. That gives a fellow a great scope for creating words.

Prior to 1362, the official language of pleading in courts, and the language of the business of governance, was French. (Educated people might also speak Latin.) 

The Statute of Pleading of 1362, which came into force when Chaucer was 20, gave English official prominence and primacy in England for the first time since the Norman invasion of 1066.

But that is not my thrust in this post. (And I agree with Pattinase that Shakespeare was another prolific creator of words.) 

Today I would like to take up the idea of creating words in English (neologisms) and the question of whether fewer words were needed before, with a digression on how time affects our perception of the validity of words.

Pattinase's first commentator, Archavist, noted that: 

"Kermodian is now an official new word. It comes from the film critic Mark Kermode who has a in your face style. It was recently used in Irish parliment (sic) when a mp (sic) said - I'm not going into a Kermodian rant. But as for inventing words I think only Lewis Carrol (sic) came close - chortle is one of his which is a mixture of chuckle and snort."

My initial thought, on reading Archavist, was that I am not sure if eponyms like kermodian or quisling should count as words credited to their eponymous namesakes, per se.

(An eponym is what is created when a person's name becomes synonomous with something else.)

Quisling comes from Vidkun Quisling, Minister-President of Norway during the Nazi occupation of Norway and a Norwegian Nazi collaborator who was executed for treason in 1945, after the war.  

I am convinced that Vidkun Quisling's ambition was power, not to have his family's name and honour become synonymous with traitor; I do not think Vidkun Quisling deserves credit for the creation of quisling and I doubt he would want it. Nonetheless, quisling is clearly a word.

A beautiful aspect of English, in my view, is that we are always creating new words, as compared to the French, for example, who are always throwing words out of their language. Beurk! (Which is a colloquial French interjection, like yuck in English.)

The French Academy (L'Académie français) does this. The Academy throws words out of the French dictionary. Annually. Officially. Encore une fois, beurk.

We, in contrast, create words and add them to our dictionaries. And, in English, we create words by more mechanisms than just eponyms, as Archavist noted.

The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (the Oxford Don of mathematics who we know better by his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll) came up with great, cracking new words like chortle and slythy by compounding words. (Chortle was explained by Archavist. Slythy is smooth and active, compounded from slimy and lithe).

Much of Dodgson's poem Jabberwocky (from "Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there", published in 1872) consists of made up words, frequently compounded from preexisting words. Unfortunately, most of Dodgson's words did not make their way into widespread English use.

Another example of a newish, made-up, compounded word that has gained universal use in English is genocide. 

Genocide is compounded from the Latin noun gens, gentis meaning race or stock (of humanity) or kind (of people) and from cidium, the Latin ending for cutting or killing.

Genocide was coined in 1944 by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Lemkin initially used the word in an essay referring to the massacre of Assyrians in Iraq, in 1933.

The sciences, including the social sciences and the applied sciences, frequently create words to explain new concepts or actions or things. 

Genocide was coined for international law. 

This was an example of an unexamined idea that needed a name, so a new word was coined. And a new aspect of international law, too, largely through Lemkin's diligence and the compelling story of the Holocaust.

Some words, like hoover, xerox, and google enter our language through common usage, even if they come from marketing campaigns.

This leads me to digress briefly and wonder about the temporal nature of words' existences.

Does quisling have more value, as a word, because it has existed longer than the verb to hoover (from the vacuum-cleaner brand the Hoover)? 

Does hoovering have more value than xeroxing or than googling because it has existed longer than xerox or google? 

I think not and cannot imagine why that would be so.

Further digressing, does it matter that googling, the use of an algorithmic search engine to find things on the web, is also the name of a company or a product (like Xerox or Hoover, respectively)?

I think not, again, simply because we have a shared consenus of meaning as to what those words mean and we use those words to express a particular meaning. The words exist in popular consciousness, therefore they are.

Does it matter if a word is an accepted word and then leaves common parlance later?

Does inconscious (unaware, ignorant in the late seventeenth century, later to be used as meaning not privy to some deed by John Milton) stop being a word because it has not been a common English word since the eighteenth century?

Do the dog-days of summer gain more prominence because dog-days as a word, as a concept with a distinct, unwavering name, has been around since the early sixteenth century? 

(Although people now give an entirely different meaning to dog-days. Dog-days used to refer to the hottest and most unwholesome time of the year. Now, while they still refer to the hottest times, they also connote lazy, relaxing times...)

I cannot imagine a meritocratic reason why a word's length of service in language should equate to greater prominence. 

Finally, Pattinase mused aloud whether or not English used to have less words.

I suppose it depends upon how you count. 

If you count variant spellings, English surely had far more words than it has now that we have standardised most things (allowing for the dichotomy between Britain and post-Websterian American English). 

True, there are things with names that did not previously exist, so one could argue that there are now more names. 

But, there are also things that were named and that used to exist but, now, no longer exist. Like dog-nails. 

A dog-nail, a variety of a clout nail, was a hand-forged nail cast in a die and commonly used in the early eighteenth century. Due to the casting and annealing process, they were weak and the head would frequently break off when hammered, but they were useful for attaching things to wood. 

A dog-nail is a nail having a large and slightly countersunk head; also a large nail with a head projecting on one side. These were used when carpentry was a less precise art, the world of fittings for the everyman was very slap-dash, and the processes of mass production decidely were not, generally, very standardised or precise.

What happens to the names of these things when the named object, like a dog-nail, ceases to exist outside of museums and antiquarian books? 

Does a person cease to have a name when they die? Of course not. 

The same rule ought to apply to things.

But, practically speaking, are there more words now than before? I do not know. I suspect that there were more words before because every time I read old legal cases I reach for a dictionary.

Who knew that a colliery is the specialized name for a coal mine? Or that a parliament is not only the name for a political construct, but also for a group of owls? 

I think that modern English writers choose to equip themselves with a paucity of words, compared to their forebears. This is partially the style, and also a concern if they want their audience to be both wide, demographically, and able to understand them without recourse to a dictionary.

But English has always been blessed with an abundance of words. 

We have stolen great words from other languages. 

How else could we talk about the bona fide angst-ridden zeitgeist of youth?

Further, we create words willy-nilly (whether one likes it or not, late nineteenth century) and hold the beautiful, resulting gewgaws (trifles or baubles, early seventeenth century) up to the light of learning for our appreciation to describe new things, or to describe things better, or to describe things to a particular audience to engage that audience and make that audience more cohesive. 

Why? Because creating words is not just useful, it is gnarly (cool, 1980s) or hip (cool, 1990s) or phat (cool, 2000s) and helps us define the communities to which we belong. 

And I bear in mind that coolness, as a want of fervour or absence of friendly warmth dates to the late seventeenth century, while coolness as in a calm assurance dates to just past the middle of the eighteenth century

Some words are always being created and pressed into service as useful dog-nails for us to hang meanings upon. 

Some (words and dog-nails both) break, some are replaced, some mutate as to their purpose (and hence their meaning) and some survive in their orgininal form.

Then, when fashions or technologies change, as dog-nails are no longer hand forged and as different methods of making new varieties of nails are introduced, then our language changes. 

English does not simply strive for the simple precision of meaning that German hunkers after; no, we want a profusion of possibilites. 

We want to pimp our linguistic ride. 

We have the words to provide true precision, though most of those words are limping off to obscurity as writers and readers floccinaucinihilipilificate these words and the utility of keeping them alive. Words like colliery which is precise because it and only it refers to a coal mine exclusively among all the other types of mines for other minerals that exist. 

(I just had to include floccinaucinihilipilificate because I enjoy it for its forgotten utility; it means the act or habit of estimating something as worthless or useless.)

Density of words and meanings has always existed in English, partially because the foot-soldiers of meaning change with each generation. Sometimes, though, the meaning stays the same as the physical manifestation of that meaning, its expressing word, changes. 

This happens as popular expressions gain widespread currency amongst groups that want to differentiate themselves, even if they only become widespread within certain segments of the population. Which is totally gnarly, hip, phat and, of course, cool.

English has many great words, and we continually create new ones. 

No one has to use all the words, but they are available to us, as wordsmiths, to choose the words we think best for our purpose, remembering our intended audience.



Cloudia said...

I enjoyed coining neologisms in my book! Aloha & thanks for an interesting post, Chris!

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Cloudia,

Glad you enjoyed it. I was already looking forward to reading (first buying, then reading) your book. I am now looking forward to it with even keener anticipation.



I'd have to check this fact but I heard on RADIO 4 recently that Lewis Carrol actually invented more new words than anyone else. I'm not sure if that's true, though.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Archavist,

I would be surprised if it was true, but it would depend on the metric. Lewis Carroll did invent heaps of words, but few made it into the general population of accepted words.

Id est, if you counted every word Dodgson created then, sure, he might have created the most.

But there is a difference, I argue, between merely coining a neologism, and between having your newly coined neologism accepted as a valid tender at the general bank of comprehension such that it can be considered an accepted new word...


Fab said...

But what is more important: the invention/crafting of new words to convey a message at a given time for a given purpose or their ultimate remaining in the "population of accepted words"?

Barrie said...

What a fascinating post! You know what word I love? Wordsmith. I wonder what it is in French?

Barbara Martin said...

i'm with Barrie...wonderful word: wordsmith.

I have a present on my blog for you.

Sepiru Chris said...


You are well aware that I am all for crafting new words; nonsense verse is near and dear to my heart.

The verbal creations of Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, and Roald Dahl, to name but three, are akin to what I spout out in extemporaneous songs.

And there is an innate joy in the creation, (and, hopefully in the listening too, at least sometimes) of these words. But to truly claim a new word, I think there needs to be a sufficient consensus of opinion as to the meaning of the word. For without shared meaning we do not have words or communication.

We, then would only have, then would have asfwerkl pijuij23 slj&/* sk#ä$£ §üü.

And I take your point. I agree both have value; but words are a special subclass of the domain of combined sounds and/or orthographical symbols...

Hi Barrie,

Glad that you enjoyed it.

While I am not un homme peu loquace (a man of few words), and I greatly enjoy jeu de mots (wordplay), possiblement je suis vraimant trop stupide (I am possibly too stupid for words). At least for this...

I might guess forgeron de mot, but I am sure that is wrong...

Help, Fab? Of the flot de paroles (flood of words) that you know, Fab, what would be the best translation for a word smith into French?


Thank you very much, for your kind words here (and elsewhere in these pages) and for your kind words in your blog.