Open readers’ minds by creating your own words
The first people to “neologize publicly on purpose” were English writers Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Among other neologisms, Carroll, author of Through the Looking Glass, brought us “chortle,” a combination of “snort” and “chuckle.”
Or so says Barbara Wallraff, who should know. Wallraff is the author of “Word Fugitives,” a column that coins new words at readers’ request, which appears in The Atlantic Monthly. She also wrote the books Word Court and Your Own Words.
In her new book, Word Fugitives, she shares these four approaches for recreational word coining:
1. Add or subtract a syllable or a letter.
Smirch was a verb, Wallraff reports, before William Shakespeare added the prefix be- to it. And impediment was in use for at least 200 years before Shakespeare came up with impede.
How can you add or subtract a syllable to create a new word?
Or make it a letter.
The Washington Post’s Style Invitational contest might invite readers to “take any word, add, subtract or alter a single letter, and redefine the word.” Recent responses include:
- Diddleman, “a person who adds nothing but time to an effort”
- Nominatrix, “a spike-heeled woman who controls the selection of candidates for party whip”
- Compenisate, “to buy a red Porsche for reasons you don’t quite understand”
Get more selections from the Post’s contests.
Rich Hall, a writer on HBO’s comedy show Not Necessarily the News, came up with the term sniglet — “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.” Sniglets fans sent Hall words like:
- Aquadextrous, “possessing the ability to turn the bathtub faucet on and off with your toes”
- Profanitype, “the special symbols used by cartoonists to replace swear words (points, asterisks, stars, and so on)”
These words are “portmanteaus,” Carroll’s term for “two meanings packed up into one word.”
“Because portmanteau words are derived from dictionary words, they tend to be less opaque than other new coinages,” Wallraff says. She proposes these portmanteaus:
- Dialexia: being terrible at transcribing phone numbers.
- Misalinement: finding oneself standing in the supermarket’s slowest line
How can you merge two words to come up with a new word?
Get more tips for forging half-and-half words.
3. Redefine terms.
In 1875, the American writer Ambrose Bierce finished a freelance manuscript that included 48 English words and his redefinitions of them, Wallraff reports. These “twisty new definitions of shopworn old words” would become The Devil’s Dictionary.
Among its redefinitions:
- Admiral: “that part of a war-ship which does the talking while the figure-head does the thinking”
- Habit: “a shackle for the free”
- Zeal: “a certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl”
How can you breathe new life into an old word with a fresh definition?
4. Make ’em metaphorical.
In An Exaltation of Larks, James Lipton, now better known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo, publishes “venerable terms of venery,” or collective nouns to define a group of objects, such as a pride of lions.
Among the terms Lipton has published:
- “a phalanx of flashers” (Kurt Vonnegut)
- “a mews of cathouses” (Neil Simon)
- “an om of Buddhists” (George Plimpton)
What’s the term of venery for a group of vice presidents? A meeting of your top clients? A conference of communicators?
Practice creating new verbs on Verbotomy.
And check out Wallraff’s latest book, Word Fugitives: In Pursuit of Wanted Words.
Source: Barbara Wallraff, “Shouldn’t there be a word …?” American Scholar, Spring 2006