Before we have a superfun convo about wordifying, and smeshing in particular, I have something adorkable to say. What if someone made a big-screen version of “Sharknado” starring Brangelina, with a twerking scene, subtexts about Californication and Obamacare, and shoutouts to schmeat-eaters and locavores everywhere?
Oh, and by the way, ’twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
Word invention has reached a fever pitch in our culture, as neologisms and new smeshies (words smooshed and meshed together) seem to go viral on a daily basis. Last week, the Oxford English Dictionaries committee ruled on which new inventions rate official attention, and “selfie” was the unanimous winner, with “bitcoin,” “twerk,” “binge-watch,” “schmeat,” and “showrooming” on the short list. They chose from an embarrassment of options, as the likes of “selfie” has spawned endless variants such as “welfie” (workout selfie), “helfie” (hair-centric selfie), bookshelfie (books-in-background selfie), and “drelfie” (drunken selfie).
We are madly in love with wordplay, reinventing old words (such as the Web words “cloud,” “surfing,” “mouse”) and blending them into new constructions. From “gaydar” to “blog” to “Frappuccino,” our days are filled with recent coinages, many of which initially gain momentum as memes that pass from person to person.
And word invention is a great pursuit, despite the fact that self-appointed and fretful defenders of the language see it as a wordmageddon.
Their version of hell is a sometimes X-rated but always amusing website called Urban Dictionary, which invites users to create and define new words and redefine old words. Since 1999, the site has amassed some 7.3 million definitions, including, two weeks ago, “Friendscaping,” defined as “The act of trimming one’s friends lists in various social media sites.” “Presstitute”? A member of the media who alters a story based on his or her financial or partisan ties.
Smeshies rule in People and Us magazines where every high-powered celebrity couple has a joint moniker, among them Kimye, Billary, and either Jenstin or Jethroux, depending on which camp you fall into. Any celebrity smoosh that can end in “oux” gets my vote.
Word and phrase creation is nothing new; Lewis Carroll is the godfather of the art, dubbing them portmanteau words in “Through the Looking-Glass” after suitcases with two compartments. Humpty Dumpty explains word combinations to Alice while discussing the
poem “Jabberwocky,” which I quoted above: “You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word,” he says.
In the 1980s, comedian Rich Hall had a regular segment on the show “Not Necessarily the News” in which he spun neologisms, which he called “sniglets”; he then turned sniglets into a book series. Around the same time, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams and John Lloyd co-wrote a book called “The Meaning of Liff,” in which they invented words that included place names.
“If you called an evolutionary biologist or something, I have a feeling they would tell you it’s just built into us,” says Barbara Wallraff, language expert and former Word Fugitives and Word Court columnist for the Atlantic. “Why do we learn language in the first place?
Because it’s a very basic skill, and once you’ve learned enough words to communicate with people, you’re not going to set aside the joy of learning new ones and inventing new ones.
“I see a kitten playing with toys to teach itself to be a hunter, and people play with language in the same way, to teach themselves to be the social creatures that we are.”
Often, Wallraff says, there is a need for a word, “and people are all too happy to coin one.” Selfie, for example. “You have to have a new word. Using the traditional words, it is what, a photographic self-portrait? Who’s going to say that?”
Filling a need may be part of the reason that, these days, wordifying seems more prevalent than ever. Our world is in the middle of tremendous changes in technology, communications, and industry; someone has to invent timely and concise words for new phenomena. With digerati (digital and literati, for tech luminaries), netiquette (Internet etiquette), webinar (Web seminar), and infotainment (information and entertainment) sprung to life, jeggings (jeans and leggings) feels inevitable don’t you think?
And the Internet has democratized culture and empowered all users. We no longer have to sit back and let the authorities hand down the rules of exchange. All of us can enjoy the fantastic creative potential in our language, the power of words, the joy of what Wallraff calls “these evanescent things flashing through the language.”