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Thursday, 20 May 2010

Making up words (part one)


ingsoc_0 One of the nice things about language is that you can make up your own. I’m not talking about Esperanto or Interlingua or anything like although I’ve always found the notion of creating a new international language fascinating. I loved all the Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Cityspeak in Blade Runner and the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. Not that I have any problems with English which, odds are, will end up becoming the world language one day in one form or another and probably a heavily Americanised version but I could live with that. If you’re interested Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of constructed languages.

I remember the question of what language people spoke pre-Tower of Babel cropped up once in our house. My father reasoned that it would have been some form of Semitic tongue since Hebrew and Aramaic were the main languages of the Jews, God’s people, and he would have kept their language intact. (Aram was Shem’s son and Noah’s grandson.) The implication is, had original sin not occurred, and Eden had spread the whole world over then we’d all be speaking with Jewish accents and probably still running around stark naked. But seeing as what we’d all have perfect bodies we wouldn’t mind. I wondered where Yiddish came into the picture. It’s actually a High German language, an adopted tongue in the same way 1st century Jews came to speak Greek because that’s what they needed to get by.

I don’t use very many Hebrew words. They’re kind of hard to slip into day-to-day conversation and actually the only ones that jump to mind at the moment are Sheol and shibboleth. Yiddish expressions I use not infrequently: schmuck I like and schlemiel, schmaltzy, shtuk and shtum. It’s strange how they all begin with the letter s but I have no answer for you. I asked my wife for one and she came up with “putz” – I didn’t take it personally. There is a term called Yinglish which is interesting but don’t get me started on Yeshivish.

The main use people make of their ability to expand the language is naming things. Okay most of us have names that go back hundreds if not thousands of years. James is a good couple of thousand years old: it’s derived from the same Hebrew name as Jacob, meaning ‘holds the heel’. But I can imagine Eve turning to Adam, when their firstborn son appeared: “Let’s call him after your dad – he’d like that.” Or maybe she did and Adam said, “No boy of mine is going to get called Godfrey.” No, they had to invent a name. And they came up with ‘Cain’ which some say means ‘a spear’. Not the name I would’ve given my boy but then any name’s better than Adam which basically means ‘dirt’; what was God thinking? I guess he named the kid after the first thing he saw after the baby was born in the good ol’ Native American tradition:

A young Indian boy asks the Indian chief, “Grandfather why do all of us Indians have strange names?”

He replies, “Well son in the dawn of the day into which the young is born, the Indian brave will leave his teepee. The first thing he sees will be the name of his young. Like your sister, Running Deer, the first thing your father saw was a running deer and your brother Flying Eagle, the first thing your father saw was a flying eagle. Now do you understand me, Two Dogs Fucking?”

So I guess it could’ve been worse: his brother (Abel) was called ‘Vapour’.

Kal-el Every now and then some poor kid gets a novel name. And I don’t mean naming them after the FA Cup winners that year or something daft like that, although it has been done. I’m thinking of all the kids like Kal-el Coppola Cage, Nicolas Cage's first baby with his wife Alice Kim (Kal-El is Superman’s birth name); Sage Moonblood Stallone and his brother Seargeoh; Jermaine Jackson’s kid, Jermajesty and glamour model Jordan’s daughter, Princess Tiaamii. There’s a list in The Times of the 50 craziest celebrity baby names and no sign of Zowie Bowie (actually Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones) or Rolan Bolan (full name, Rolan Seymour Feld). Moon Unit Zappa was there though.

Celebrities are not the only culprits. According to the BBC website:

· A study discovered that 7,261 girls have been called Kylie, with another 288 named Madonna.

· But film characters also proved a hit with six babies named Gandalf after the wizard from Lord of the Rings, and two lucky boys given the name Superman.

· Thirty-six sets of parents called their child Arsenal after the football team.

· Sporting legend Tiger Woods has also made his mark with 1,200 boys named after him - or the animal.

· And some kids didn't escape being branded - with the names Reebok and Adidas cropping up too.

Of course, if you don’t like your name there’s always the option to change it to something more appropriate, like the Glastonbury teenager, one George Garratt, who changed his name to Captain Fantastic Faster Than Superman Spiderman Batman Wolverine Hulk And The Flash Combined. He did it online for £10.00.

His grandmother is apparently no longer speaking to him. In Italy, a couple was banned from naming their son Friday - Venerdi - because the name could expose him to ridicule (the court ordered the boy's name be changed to Gregorio, named after the saint's day on which he was born); conversely a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so she could change her name from Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii to something sensible. In New Zealand again, a couple was banned from naming their baby 4Real, so they chose Superman instead.

Names are important:

One particularly suggestive study, done in 1954, looked at 1,682 case histories of children treated in a mental health clinic in New Jersey. Boys with unusual first names (names that occurred only once or twice among the group of children) were more likely to have moderate or severe emotional disturbance, compared with boys with more common names. (The same effect was not found among the girls in the clinic, however.)


In another study ... sixth-graders' self-concept--how effective, attractive, and valued they felt--was related to the desirability of their first names. Moreover, children with desirable first names scored higher on a standardized test of academic achievement. One possible interpretation is that teachers expect children with more popular names to do better and so, over time, those positive expectations translate into actual higher levels of achievement. – Robert Needlman, ‘Names and Personality’

Once we’ve managed to screw up our kids for life there are plenty of other things we can name, like flowers (if we breed a new one) or stars (if we find a new one). Lily Allen has a flower named after her (a lily of course) as does the Duffydil Welsh singer Duffy (‘the Duffydill’); Maria Callas and Katherine Jenkins have also had flowers named after them. As for stars, there’s a website (who says the web is not a dangerous place?) where, for a measly £49.95, the International Star Registry will select on your behalf a star from a constellation visible over the relevant Hemisphere so that you can see it with the aid of a telescope. You can, however, choose the constellation yourself:

For example, if someone particularly likes cats or horses, they may be especially pleased to have a star named after them in the constellation of Lynx - "the Cat" or Pegasus - "the Winged Horse"!’s prices start at a bargain $19.95.

Obviously a lot of satisfaction can be had from naming something. But clearly there are consequences to giving something a wrong or inappropriate name. (Ever heard A Boy Named Sue?) Should you be able to hear or look at a name a glean something from it? When is a name more than a label?

There are rules of nomenclature certainly as far as the sciences go but most of us aren’t scientists, besides a lot of time the names scientists pick are pretty obvious: horny backed toad, black hole – that shows a real lack of imagination. That doesn’t mean the rest of can’t make up our own arbitrary rules. There are rules for naming racehorses, for example. In an interview Jockey Club registrar Rick Bailey explained:

We have a limitation of exactly 18 characters, and there are some special permissions that you have to get, for example, so that if you wanted to name a horse after a person, you would need to seek written permission from that person. One of the best ones that I remember in my 17 years here at the Jockey Club is, several years back, we had a filly named Barbara Bush when Mrs. Bush was still first lady at the time. We received a letter of permission on White House letterhead. So that was pretty exciting. – ‘The Science of Naming a Racehorse’, NPR

Cheering on a horse called ‘Barbara Bush’ feels as daft to me as looking up at the sky at a speck of light called, ‘Tom Baker’ . (Yes, there is one. When asked how he felt about having a star named after him, his response was: "I'm over the moon!")

Of course neither the horse nor the star care what we call it. My mother had no imagination when it came to naming her cats: her black cats were called Blackie and Sooty; the white one was called Snowy; the ginger one, Tigger; the one that looked like Tom from Tom and Jerry, Tom; the black and white one, Minstrel and the big one, Biggie, because he had no other distinguishing feature. I have a goldfish called Fishy and a cockatiel named Poirot but who gets called ‘Birdie’. And the slugs are all called ‘Sluggie’.

There is another way we get to name things. Take the new bridge across the Clyde, the Clyde Arc. No one calls it that.

It’s known colloquially as ‘the Squinty Bridge’, owing to its diagonal path across the Clyde. Or Dublin’s ‘Monument of Light’ which gets called ‘the Spike’ because that’s exactly what it is, a spike 350ft tall. When my daughter was a kid she used to meet her mates at ‘the big pointy thing’ which was a local monument. When I was her age I used to meet my mates at ‘the green bridge.’ The thing was there were actually two green bridges and even when the local council painted it blue it was still ‘the green bridge’. We like names that make sense or are familiar. And this is especially true within families.

Everyone knows about dialects but have you ever heard the expression oikolect before? It was a new one on me until a while ago when my wife introduced me to it. Whereas an idiolect is a form of a language spoken by an individual as distinct from a group, class, or nation, an oikolect is a language spoken by a household.

eco-, oeco-, oec-, oiko-, oik- (Greek: house, household affairs [environment, habitat], home, dwelling; used in one extensive sense as, “environment”).

I’m sure if you think about it you’ll be able to think of a few words that your family define in a unique way. I’ll give you a good example: when I was a kid my parents had two downstairs rooms apart from the kitchen, the one at the front of the house (the one kept for good) was ‘the front room’, the other room, the one we lived in (which you would imagine would have been referred to as ‘the living room’) was actually called ‘the house’. My wife even has a poem called ‘A Room Called House’.

Another expression that I think was unique to my family was the word ‘cornish’ to refer to a mantelpiece. I have no idea where that originated. Kitchen stools were ‘buffetts’. I’m guessing as to the spelling but I need to distinguish them from the word ‘buffet’.

A woman I knew told me about bringing her newborn son home – she already had a daughter of about three at the time – and as she had the child on the table her daughter was getting in the way taking way too much interest in the proceedings, anyway, when the nappy came off the little girl looked at her little brothers genitalia and announced: “Mummy! John’s got a pom-pom on his bottom.” From that day on the familial euphemism for the private parts of males became ‘pommie’.

My wife and I have a few expressions that are unique to our own household. An annoyingly effuse (and generally not very bright) girl is ‘a Tracey’ after a girl I used to work with. ‘Decoder ring poems’ is an expression we coined for poems that only make sense once you have a key piece of information that you could not possibly glean from the poem itself. Her poem ‘A Room Called House’ is a decoder ring poem. Its true meaning is indiscernible without knowing about my family’s oikolect. One I remember from when I was a teenager was referring to a perm as ‘a frizzbomb’ and that stuck for a while.

Sometimes I deliberately missay words just for the fun of it: tevelision (television), deaf and tootly (definitely), bumbershoot (umbrella). I’m not sure if they count but I suspect they do because my family know not to correct me and it’s only certain words. I personally think it’s a way of compensating for being serious so much of the time. It’s the same with the bird. I talk to the bird all the time and also do his responses which include a number of words of ‘his’ own invention: dogs become ‘doggie-birds’; my daughter is ‘blonde bird’ (not sure why since she’s not actually blonde); singing has become ‘singering’; twittering, ‘twitification’; screaming, ‘noiseification’; his treats (which are square cuboids) and simply called ‘square things’ to differentiate them from his regular food which are ‘round things’ (actually they’re cylindrical) and so on. He also has a tendency to slip into a Northern accent.

Next time: idioglossia, neologisms, gobbledegook, gibberish, Unwinese, inflationary English, argots, textese, twitterspeak, sniglets, abbreviationese, protologisms, nonce words, nicknames, pet names, euphemisms and acronyms. I think that covers it all.


Rachel Fenton said...

Pondation! I've been saying that and variations of it to my pondeedle since he was born. I wonder at what point he will realise it isn't a real word - probably when he realises most of what I say to him is made up! And then he'll say, "pon eck" or something similar!

What's the point of language if you can't make stuff up?

Jim Murdoch said...

Precisely, Rachel. I've remembered another one that my wife uses. She'll say to me, "Will you get me a strip of latinum?" and I'll bring back a strip of her pain medication. I have no idea how it all started but one day that was what she asked for and that was what I brought her and now that's what it is. The expression comes from Deep Space Nine, latinum being the currency used by the Ferengi. It comes in slips, strips, bars and bricks. The thing is my wife's actually not that big a Star Trek fan.

Dave King said...

I thought it was going to be a piece on building new compound words, as in the German language where you have sentence-long words.

I knew of a lad with 13 Christian names, one from each of his dad's football team's first squad.

I sometimes refer to my computer as a pooter, partly after the way some young children I have worked with spoke of it, and sometimes when it's not doing all it should do, I like the association with Poo.

Jim Murdoch said...

I used to read a comic years ago called Deathlok the Demolisher, Dave. Wikipedia calls him a cyborg but he was really just a reanimated dead guy with a wicked sense of humour and a computer embedded inside him which he talked out loud to. He called it "'Puter." The computer would tell him things like the damage he was doing in dollars as he walked across a grass lawn. I would’ve cited an example of a kid with all the names of a football team if I could’ve found one. For once my search abilities let me down.

Kass said...

Made up words for for lady and men parts are the best. I have a twillip and you have a tweptwa.

Jim Murdoch said...

I would imagine, Kass, that more euphemisms exist throughout the world to describe sexual organs and the various forms of human congress than exist than for anything else. I have a book devoted to euphemisms and entire chapters are devoted to them. It’s not until you look at a book like that that you start to realise how rarely we actually say what we mean if we can possibly avoid it. As a child I referred to my private parts as my ‘old man’ – that was the expression my father used and so I adopted it not realising there was a proper name for the thing. No one talked about lady bits.

Ken Armstrong said...

I like saying words wrong deliberately. The things you might have before your dinner will always be 'whores de ouvrez' to me.

Dave King said...

I very much like ther sound of your Deathlok Demolisher. Think I mikght just look him up!

koe said...

Jim - this was a great article - thanks. The comments were edifying too! I learned so much.

When my son was little we went to the site of the Woodstock concert and while there bought him a Jimi Hendrix bobble-head toy. All bobble-heads became known as "jimies" (sp?) in our house. In another leap of imaginization, in this part of the US, the colored sprinkles that are put on ice cream are sometimes called 'jimmies.' In our oikolect - they are "bobbles."

What is it called when you put a word inside another word for, lets say, a more colorful effect?

As in: I "abso-freakin'-lutely" agree with you. Or: I'm going to the "delica-freakin'-tessen."

I can't wait to read what you write about sniglets - we've got the Rich Hall books and the kids love them. . .

Your invention of the phrase 'decoder ring poem' is fantastic. I wonder if anyone has ever written a series of paired poems - where one is somewhat indecipherable without the other. . . Enigma and Ultra.

Again thanks for all the thought provoking writing. I don't know how you do it.


Elisabeth said...

I've developed this odd affliction of late, Jim, of mixing up my words.

Last night I asked my daughter if she wanted a 'Hungry Macs', a cross between Hungry Jacks and MacDonalds, I presume.

I also mix up terms for categories. So for program, I say menu or recipe, for types of all types I ask what's the menu. I wonder whether its early Alzheimer's or whether I'm just being unconsciously creative. I don't mix things up deliberately.

Great post, Jim. I Like learning new and amazing things about words. I'm also fascinated by the idea that odd names can contribute to mental disturbance, by the sound of things. It makes sense, but where's cart and where's horse?

Crazy parents are more likely to offer their children crazy names.

Jim Murdoch said...

We learn through play, Ken. It would be unnatural for us not to play with our words when we’re ‘off duty’ as it were. With me it’s probably puns more than anything. I’ll deliberately mishear something Carrie says or treat it literally – I always used to love that about characters like Mork or Data – that’s always good for a laugh.

I can only speak for the version of Deathlok that was published in Astonishing Tales #25-36 (Aug. 1974 - July 1976), Dave. I know that he was brought back after that but I can’t comment on the quality of the writing. I think I picked up one of the later ones for a look-see and wasn’t too impressed. I think what I liked about him is that he was just not what a “superhero” was supposed to look like. I’ve always been fond of the more off-beat characters like that.

The word for that figure of speech, Koe, is tmesis although in Australia, where it’s a popular figure of speech, they’re more likely to know it as tumbarumba.

And, Lis, yes, my wife has suffered from that for a while. She calls it ‘word salad’ but it’s not that bad. It’s just a slight aphasia in her case. When I was at my worst I had it too but mine was mainly a written form of the condition. When editing my blogs Carrie would distinguish between typos and “brain farts” which became our word for the kind of mistakes I would make, mixing up words, combining words and using the wrong homonym – a popular mistake – like typing ‘b’ instead of ‘be’. If it happened once then it was a typo but the brain farts could be distinguished by constantly making the same mistake. Confusing plurals and possessives was another one. I could never have survived without her. I would’ve been too embarrassed to post my blogs knowing they were riddled with errors.

koe said...

thank you.

Milo James Fowler said...

I've had students in the past who have studied enough of Tolkien's "elvish" and Star Trek's "klingon" to have private conversations with each other--probably about me, their teacher!

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, Kass, I thought Nell was a wonderful film and I think it was one Jodie Foster was particularly pleased with herself. What amazed me was the fact that she never found Nell’s voice until they were actually set up and ready to shoot.

And, Milo, I remember someone had to job on Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country to ‘translate’ for the actors. “Daq taH joq ghobe' Daq taH,” – “To be or not to be” – was made up on the spot. Nice work if you can get it. I found it using an online Klingon Translater and Dictionary. All good clean fun, eh?

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