Welcome to Day 15 of #30PostsHathSept. [PLEASE READ all my other challenge posts HERE.] I hope this post gives you an even greater appreciation for words and language.
Words. Words. Words. What exactly are words?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines word as:
“A written or printed character or combination of characters representing a spoken word”
“A speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use”
But these definitions cannot even begin to contain that entity which we call WORD.
I love words, the flow, the music, and the personality that bursts forth. Sometimes a word can draw its own image. Tree looks like a tree, tall and firmly planted. Cloud looks like a cloud, rounded, billowy, and floating across our mind under its own power. Whisper is soft and quiet, just as we would expect it to be. Shriek, on the other hand, makes us cover our ears.
Words are so much more than sounds or hash marks on a page. Words are truly living breathing life forms. Words have their own genetic code, changing and evolving over time and distance. In a person’s lifetime, they will see the birth (and sometimes death) of hundreds of these life forms.
Do you remember that the word awful once actually meant something amazing? Or if someone called you nice, it’s as an insult to say you are foolish.
Where would we be without some of the common everyday words?
Take a look at these three words and a few of their first occurences.
“This is the strangest fellow, brother John:
Come, bring your luggage nobly on your back:” [King Henry IV, Part I]
“In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.” [All’s Well That Ends Well]
“Since his addiction was to courses vain,
His companies unletter’d, rude and shallow,” [Henry V]
Some say William Shakespeare coined between 1700-2000 or more words. Many were compound words, or even one of the techniques for which today’s wordsmiths are so famous: turning nouns into verbs. Shakespeare invented words like caked and gloomy and rant and so many others.
Many people have been involved in the evolution of language. Neologism is the term meaning new word. Sometimes neologisms are uttered by people with neurological conditions (such as stroke, schizophrenia, or autism), or even by children just learning to speak. The basis for forming words is part of our biological make-up.
Writers are famous for coining words. William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and many other wonderful books, in part gave our language words like cyberspace, netsurfing, and the popularized notion of the matrix. Catch-22 became part of standard language after the success of Joseph Heller’s book of the same name. Did you know the first printed appearance of the word nerd was by none other than the master of kid’s literature, Dr. Seuss, in his 1950 book If I Ran The Zoo?
And speaking of Dr. Seuss, who doesn’t know the meaning of the word grinch? Charles Dickens may have further gifted our language with the word scrooge, but did you know he also invented the word boredom in his book Bleak House?
Here’s author John Green in a video about 43 words coined by authors.
There are so many different types of coined words, including combination words (like football or starlight or eyeglasses), and blended words (themselves called portmanteau – a word coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass for words combined by fusing sounds and meanings together as one).
” ‘Slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau, there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
Portmanteau comes from the French words, porter (to carry) + manteau (coat or cloak). Thus, it’s a type of luggage and it’s related to one of Shakespeare’s words again!
Authors weren’t the only ones getting into the word-making business. Many presidents and politicians played a role. We’ve all said iffy at times when we were uncertain. For that, we can thank Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ever complain about someone sugarcoating the facts? Thank Abraham Lincoln for that word. Then there’s George W. Bush and misunderestimate. Not to be outdone is the winner of the 2010 Oxford University Press Word of the Year – 2008 Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin and the word she made popular, refudiate.
Then there are the acronyms, many of which became so popular that we often forget their origin. Scuba, coined by Jacques Cousteau, is actually an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”. Your phone’s sim card is actually a “subscriber identification module”. Annoyed by captcha’s? You’re actually annoyed by “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart”. Say that three times real fast.
The advent of computer texting has brought even more words to common usage, from YMMV to LOL and beyond. Author Lauren Myracle, about a decade ago, wrote a handful of books for young adult readers using only texting language. Their titles include bff, ttfn, ttyl, and L8r,g8r.
People like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook is another combination word) have even publicly stated that in the future, artificial intelligence may surpass humans at articulating emotion, perhaps making language unnecessary (or at least less accurate) in some cases.
The search engine used everyday by everyone is actually a coined word of a coined word. The name Google was a variation of the word Googol, a number representing 1.0 x 10100. An elementary school boy who was the nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner had coined the word Googol. The young man’s job: To coin a name for a really big number. Googol fit the bill for him. How about you?
All of you can make your own words. New words come into our vocabulary everyday. Any one with a love for words can develop their own. A book entitled Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little may help you begin. You can also enjoy the website WordSpy to hear all about new words.
After all, if you think it’s impossible to coin words, remember that the author J.R. R. Tolkien developed a number of entire languages, complete with grammar rules, as a supplement to his Lord of the Rings series.
So where is language going in the next 10-20-50 years? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: Noah Webster would likely be thrilled to see such an active interest in words and the evolution of language.
I leave you with this TED.com video on how texting is changing both language and words…and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
[You can enjoy all the daily posts from the #30PostsHathSept bloggers HERE]