Friday, January 04, 2008

Brave New Word (Evocabulary Part 2)

I have an odd ambition (which I will share with you momentarily) and it's all to do with the English language. It's a subject I've talked about several times before, most notably in my post about the apparent similarities between the evolution of life forms and language (read it here). I'll start with a question:

What does 'fly' mean?

Apart from being the name of an annoying insect, the word ‘fly’ can mean to soar through the air (fly in the sky), to run away (fly away from here!), to pass quickly (fly by) and to do something concurrently with something else (on the fly). It’s the name we give to a zipper in a pair of trousers and the name for a tent door-flap. It can be a noun (the annoying insect), a verb (to fly a plane) and, in recent years, an adjective (pretty fly for a white guy). It’s amazing how complicated a little word like ‘fly’ can be. And it gets even worse when you start adding tenses.

I can fly. The plane flew. It was flown by me. It flies very well.

Flies fly but a fly flies!

It’s something short of a miracle that anyone ever gets to grips with the English language; especially someone who is learning it as a second tongue. If you think that ‘fly’ is complicated, spare a thought for the humble word ‘set’. Doesn’t look like a troublesome word does it? Believe it or not, ‘set’ has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb and 10 as an adjective. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary 60,000 words to explain it. And this is a language considered ‘simpler’ than other languages because we don’t have to worry about such complicated things as gender or tenses.

And then think about how many words there are to describe things. How many ways can you think of to describe something as ugly? Unsightly. Hideous. Repulsive. Unlovely. Odious. If I’ve counted correctly, Roget’s Thesaurus lists 127 words and short phrases that relate to ugliness. English is a rich and varied language and (I believe) the only language that needs a Thesaurus. So we can be reasonably sure that we have enough words and are not likely to run out in a hurry. Yet the language adds around 300 new words every year. Nimby. Texting. Google (as a verb). Blamestorming.

I have an odd ambition. I want to invent a new word. I want future dictionaries to carry that word and for people to use it in everyday conversation. See? I told you it was an odd ambition. But what better way is there to immortalise yourself? What a great way to leave something behind when you go.

This ambition grew from two quite separate sources. The first was my almost pathological hatred of ugly business jargon. We all know about the yuppie; the young and upwardly-mobile flexecutive. Yuppies were a product of the 80s but they’re still around, yapping on about hot-desking and making products futureproof. They identify low hanging fruit to greenwash while thinking outside the box. Worst of all, these young infoholics – at the bleeding edge of business – often become victims of presenteeism and this leads to hurry sickness.

Crap isn’t it?

The second source was William Shakespeare. Did you know that Shakespeare invented around 1500 words? The sixteenth century saw the consolidation of English as a proper language alongside French (which had been used for all legal matters) and Latin (used for medicine, science and religion). The language was in a state of flux with no proper rules or regulations (which is a state that has persisted until the present day despite the best efforts of 18th century Latin scholars), so the situation was ripe for inventiveness and innovation with no one to say ‘nay’ to your ideas. Wading into this plastic, easily-mouldable proto-language came Shakespeare. And in next to no time he’d added hundreds of new words to the lexicon including: accommodation, bedroom, cheap, disgraceful, employment, foul mouthed, gossip, hinge, invitation, jaded, lonely, manager, neglect, obscene, puke, retirement, savage, traditional, useless, vulnerable, worn out and zany.

So surely I can invent just one?

But how? How do you go about doing that?

The obvious thing would be to name something that doesn’t have a name. Thing is … the late Douglas Adams and John Lloyd already beat me to it with their book The Meaning of Liff. To be fair, they didn’t actually invent any new words. They took words off road signs that were ‘hanging around doing nothing’ and used them to describe things that had no name. Thus HOGGESTON (n.) becomes ‘the action of over-shaking a pair of dice in a cup in the mistaken belief that this will affect the eventual outcome in your favour and not irritate everyone else’ and SYMOND'S YAT (n.) becomes ‘the little spoonful inside the lid of a recently opened boiled egg.’

But I want more than that. I want to invent a proper word. And in order to get it into the OED, it’s got to be used by people on a regular basis and find its way into literature. So, here’s where you can help me. I have a word and I want you all to use it at every opportunity. Write it in your diaries. If you’re a reporter, report it. If you’re a feature writer, feature it a feature. If you’re a novelist, have your heroine say it with heavy panting as her hero unbuttons her blouse. And the word is …

WHELMISH (a.). A state of feeling neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed, but somewhere in between. A general sense of disconnection with the world around you, as seen in the living zombies that share your bus/ train/ tube ride into work during the rush hour every day.

Everyone I’ve asked could describe what it’s like to be whelmish. But none of them had a single word for it. So I invented one. So now I can say, “I’m feeling a bit whelmish.” And so can you.

So get out there and, literally, spread the word.

Unless, that is, you’re feeling a bit whelmish.

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