Monday, June 1, 2009

The Anxiety That Comes from Drinking Too Much Coffee

While I'm not exactly anti-neologisms, I am suspect of them.  Since most neologisms are Greco-Roman style tongue wrestlers meant to clarify the more abstruse portions of contemporary theory (that sophist's pool of intrametaphysics--score!) they generally go the way of most academic language-- pressed between covers and shelved or breathed with dynamic inflection by the bright students of So and So U-- with thin chance of ever making it into the language proper to be abused by circumstances to fit new terms and conditions (deconstruction-- is the one example I'm coming up with right now). 

But what about words that can actually be used when the circumstance is presented? In Pale Fire, Nabokov's parody of academia, Kinbote coins the term irricule to describe a hole in a group of clouds through which light passes.  Yeah that Kinbote is one questionable narrator-- but way to nail the landing. Of course, Kinbote was created by a gifted multi-linguist, so I imagine the word may actually have roots in other languages (Mother Russia?), but irricule! ... okay try using it without feeling self-conscious, though. 

Then there was Philip Roth's attempt to enter the colloquy, Portnoy's Complaint (the dust jacket provided a handy Webster's style definition).  He was one of the many authors blown away by Joseph Heller's success in Catch 22.  Yep- Catch 22, Heller's invention, an entirely serviceable little phrase that works and finds use in day-to-day America.  That seems a bit like a one-time only trick, though.  Roth's attempt, while brilliant, proved that old hipster truism, that conscious exertion towards effecting people's behavior through example generally fails (you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him speak). 

Okay so new words are tricky, unless they come from say famous rappers or rise up from the bubbling crude of the internet. But those words, like new elements, have (or should have) a very short life span. That language is made to describe a moment and is dead once its novelty wears off. Fo shizzle. That's not to discount the endless fountain of argot produced from the street, euphemistic or analogous mostly associated with shady and dubious dealings (Dubious-- a theory exists that literally any word can be used as slang for pot-- look around the room and try it out, just make sure you say, "Hey, bro, you got any..." beforehand.) Neck and neck with the horrid utility sprach of corporate America-- the actionized nouns that germinate in MBA programs and get fed through the filter of officals to the uneducated lackeys (read: me) who have to cobble together some semblance of idiom from the linguistic equivalent of a manilla folder (that tongue shall not be spoken here). 

So how do the good people at Merriam Webster's continue to fatten their publication with solid, usable language? I was trying to think up a good single word that would sum up the title of this piece; caffeinabled, anxienated?  But it seems like good words can't just be those German style train car combos or Lewis Carroll type portmanteaus.  I like that Nabokov went for the sense of the thing rather than building a word from other words-- irricule just nails it phonetically.  How about the multiple movement of leaves and tree limbs in a steady breeze?  Sway doesn't really cut it for me there, there's a sort of a rustling rhumba going on-- yeah that tree is having a personal jam session with the wind, but can it be resolved down into a single word?  

No comments:

Post a Comment