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The Hobbyist Linguist: on word coining

In some ways our language de-fines who we are: especially when it comes to what our lexicon can describe. Nonetheless, there still aren't nearly enough words to describe the vast number of objects, feelings, and circumstances that are part of our daily life. This problem has called into life the phenomena of word coining. Word coining is the sport of 'creating' new words:one of the ways to fill this gaping hole in our lexicon is to actively invent words to fill it with. If it weren't for human creativity, there wouldn't be gems like diddleman (a person who adds nothing but time to an effort) or nominatrix (a spike-heeled woman who controls the selection of candidates for the party whip) (Wallraff).

Word coining happens to be all around us. With our technology improving at an unstoppable pace and new devices being invented left and right, it is easy to provide modern examples of word coining; Twitterheart, for instance, is a good example. The definition of this 'new' word is fairly simple: someone you know and fancy through twitter.

Nonetheless, word coining had already been around a long time before our technological era. Prime examples of pioneering word coiners are Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare. Carroll's famous poem “the Jabberwocky” seems to consist mainly out of portmanteaus, 'new' words created from blending two or more distinct words. A good example is the word 'chortle': a mix of chuckle and snort ( Wallraff), while a more abstract example is the word 'besmirch'. It is because of Shakespeare that we actually have the word besmirch (to stain; sully). Smirch was already part of the English language for over 200 years before Shakespeare’s day and age (Wallraff). However, it was Shakespeare who added the prefix be- to this word we still use.

Although there are good examples of word coiners in a literary context, Lewis Carroll being one of them, word coining is a calling anyone could have. As Wallraff states in her article: "Coining words is like sex in that it's necessary to our species - but rarely do people engage in it for the sake of keeping humankind going."( p. 76) It is only when you start coining words that you discover the lexical gap in the English language. When you start creating new words, you become aware of what is lacking in our descriptions of the world around us. Word coining can be seen as the bohemian version of hobbyist photography.

Anyone can coin words. But what will make one the Jimmy Nelson of word coining? The answer to this lies in the shortcomings of failed coinages rather than in the success of the ones in common use today. The most important of shortcomings a coinage can have lies in its pronunciation. When you mix two words together it can become hard to pronounce the word properly. A good example of this is the word Eyelie (mix of Eye and lie) (Wallraff). Secondly, being overambitious is another common mistake many coiners make. Sometimes a coiner tries to make unnecessary (sexual) references, which can ensure the loss of meaning a coinage can and should have (Wallraff). The final fault coiners make is creating unnecessary coinages, for example words we already have in mainstream languages - or coinages that describe non-existing problems.

We might not all be Shakespeares or Carrolls. Nevertheless, this should not withhold us from exploring the world around us and trying to capture its essence in words. We should not let the gap in our lexicon prevent us from speaking our language. Rather the contrary: it should encourage us to create new words. In the case of coining words trying is more important than winning. It is the process of word coining that makes one more aware of language and the world it describes – with its shortcomings and everything it entails.

by Nina Fokkink


Works Cited


Wallraff, Barbara. "Shouldn't there Be a Word..? The Holes in our Language and the Never-Ending Search for Words to Fill them" American Scholar Ed. Robert Wilson Vol. 75 No. 2. Washington: Blackwell, 2006. 76-87. Print.