The keen eyed amongst you may have observed that it’s been a while since I regularly updated this site.

I can’t pretend anyone’s been begging me to get back on the horse, but by way of an unasked-for explanation, I’d been trying to focus on writing my novel, as though I had a small allocation of words per day, and what remained after the day job must be hoarded.

A last-minute request from Mumbrella (write a piece on Steve Jobs’ contribution to marketing in less than two hours) coincided with another bit of parry and thrust with strategy whiz and occasional internet sparring partner Mark Pollard, and made me realise I’m not taking my own advice.

To become a better writer, one must write. More, and often, in different forms.  So I’m here again with a new approach. Less polish, more speed, more open to discussion. Bang out a post, see what you think.

Let’s dance…

Words. An easy fallback, maybe. I’ve written about this before, but it’s still a rich seam to me. I love the mutability of language and the egalitarian fact that it can be re-imagined and reworked by anyone. Mark Pollard reminded me that Shakespeare invented nearly 2000 words in his lifetime (in a frankly half-hearted attempt to justify his use of “perspectful”) – coining “dictionarians” to imply, I think, fussy rule-makers who seek to collect and legislate language. Language is a shark – it needs to be in motion to stay alive. The OED added 400 words to its last edition, but they tended to be fairly basic, describing simple acts or adjectives, not abstract concepts. And it’s these that I think we’re lacking.

This is definitely a moment in time where our language can’t always cope with the task of describing the world.

There’s a famous story of three learned European theorists who visited the U.S in the thirties. I like to think of them as whitebearded and clad in three piece woollen suits, anachronistic in the land of nylon. They became lost in the endless identically featureless corridors of a brand new skyscraper, and, distressed, remarked that no words in any of the many European or ancient languages they knew could describe this uniquely modern experience.

We are at a similar point of tension between old and new, and this moment cries out for another Shakespeare to help us navigate it. But while Shakespeare’s additions were crisp, juicy and often playful, we’re being swamped with ugly portmanteaus like “phygital”, “wantrepreneur” and “futuretainment’*.

This is a plea for linguists, scholars, people cleverer than I: help us fill these gaps with beautiful and useful neologisms, or the crude and tedious will take over by default.

Where are the needful spaces? Of course, there are ton of gaps around the shifts between on- and offline experience.

In True Blood, (good ideas can come from anywhere, ok?) Eric muses on,

“the strange sensation when reality matches what you pictured in your mind so precisely”.

This could describe meeting someone you’ve formed an online relationship with IRL for the first time, but what would that word be? And its inverse…?

Anyone who’s had dealings with, say, Telstra, or certain government departments may agree that we need a word for the experience of being trapped within the mechanism of a seemingly limitless corporate machine, the rules and logic of which are unknowable and arcane. Kafka-esque feels a tad elitist.

It’s not just the mechanical or virtual; our relationships are changing – the sheer places and number of people we encounter have probably increased a hundredfold compared to a century ago. We’re waiting for language to catch up.

How do we describe, for example, that feeling of intense tenderness and love one has for a person or place moments before leaving it, or them, forever?

If you’re over thirty, you may find the term boy- or girlfriend an unacceptably trivial way of referring to your significant other, while “partner” is too stuffy and businesslike, and “lover” smacks of sexual boasting. Paramour? Mate?

And what about the love of devices we seem to be developing – a friend recently put her iPhone at the top of the list things she’d save from a house fire, and I don’t think she’s alone.  Have humans ever fetishised objects to this extent before? What should we call it? Mobilophila? Objectsession?

Some strong contenders: Forbes offered “Millibillitrilli,” to define the incomprehensibly large numbers touted by governments and in bailout plans.  Edward de Bono suggests there’s a need for the word  “ebne” which means ‘Excellent But Not Enough‘.

But my favourite neologism belongs to Señor Richardson“hippopotaneuse”– the fattest person in a threesome.

What do you think language is lacking?

*For more of this atrociousness, visit Words Douchebags Say.

5 thoughts on “if language were liquid: on new words and ways of writing

  1. Skents and I made up a bunch of words (mostly mood describers) and she used them casually on her radio programme for a few months. Then, she asked listeners to ring in giving their meanings.
    Ha ha!! People were actually using them in everyday discourse, some even claimed they were “Cornish” words from way back.

  2. I don’t think you can ask for words to be invented. Language is emergent. It comes when it is needed. Less like a shark that must keep moving and more like train that can not stop.

    I’m sure people found Shakespeare’s mutations to be crude. We will only know in time when the words persist long after their spawning that they are keepers. Once they are part of every day use, we may forget they are crude and remember they are just words.

  3. Pingback: Initiation & the language of tribes « Sublimis

  4. Pingback: Initiation & the language of tribes - Stephen Ellis

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