Monday, March 7, 2011

Appeared in March edition of Lexpert with title "Out of Thin Air"

The number of words out of thin air is thin


Howard Richler

The Oxford Companion to the English Language lists nine ways neologisms are formed

1)compounding, e.g., “blackboard”; 2)derivation, e.g., “unfriendly” deriving from “friend”; 3)shifting meaning, e.g., “spin” to mean “bias”; 4)extension in grammatical function, e.g. the verb “to fax” from the noun “fax”; 5)abbreviations, e.g., “fax” shortened from “facsimile”; 6)back-formation, e.g., “disinform” from “disinformation.”; 7)blending, e.g., “smog” from “smoke” and “fog,” and 8)borrowing from other languages, e.g. “karate” from Japanese. Under its ninth category it states that we see “very rarely, root creation, or coinage from sounds with no previous known meaning.”
The designation “very rarely” is hardly an exaggeration. There are close to a million words listed in the OED, yet no more than three dozens of these words fall into the “ex-nihilo” category. There are many words in our language that are named after people such as “lynch” and “sandwich” but these words derive from flesh and blood rather than appearing out of the blue. Many words that are listed as having “arbitrary” etymologies in the OED are in fact highly influenced by existing words. Such is the case of “flabbergast” influenced by “flabby” and “aghast,” and “discombobulate” from “discompose.”

An ex-nihilo word may find its way into our language simply because the word’s progenitor liked its sound. When American physicist Murray Gell-Mann discovered a new particle in 1964, he at first called it a “quork.” He eventually switched the name to “quark,” a word he discovered in this passage from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce: “Three quarks for Mister Mark” which referred to an order for three quarts of beer placed in a pub in the novel.

Even more improbable is the creation of the word “blurb” named after a pulchritudinous Miss Belinda Blurb who adorned the front cover of humourist Gelett Burgess’s 1907 book Are You a Bromide? at the annual dinner of the American Bookseller’s Association. The picture was actually a doctored version of a fetching lass Burgess had ogled in a dental advertisement. In 1914, Burgess defined this coinage in his work Burgess Unabridged: “Blurb 1: A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher…” From the beginning , Burgess himself and others applied “blurb” to all dust jacket copy as well as to advertising copy and publicity notices of any kind.

The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein is also credited with creating an ex-nihilo word . In his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, he introduced the verb “to grok” to refer to intuitive understanding. The term caught on and in 1968 Tom Wolfe used the verb in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “Instead they are all rapping and grokking over the sound.”

The term “boondoggle” also seems to have to have come out of thin air. In 1929 , the word was used by scoutmaster Robert Link of Rochester, New York to refer to the leather cord worn by Boy Scouts around their necks. Link may not have been the progenitor of the term, as there is some evidence that points to the term having been used previously to refer to various devices used by cowboys. In any case, the sense of the word changed on April 4, 1935 when the New York Times sported the following headline “$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play .. Boon Doggles Made.” The article stated that the term “boondoggle” was “simply a term applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today”. This news story was picked up by several newspapers and “boondoggle” and “boondoggling” were quickly adapted by opponents of the New Deal to refer to money-wasting , unproductive projects.

One need not be an author, physicist or scoutmaster to create a lasting ex-nihilo term. Perhaps the best-known of genre of words is “googol” which refers to the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeroes. In 1940, distinguished American mathematician Edward Kasner invited his nine-year old nephew , Milton Sirotta, in to make up a name for a very big number and the lad responded “googol.” Not bound by the confines of “googol,” Milton suggested that the term “googolplex” be applied to the number one followed by a googol zeroes. Using “googolplex” as shorthand for this finite number is definitely a time-saving device, for, as Kasner noted, “there would not be enough room to write it, if you went to the farthest star, touring all the nebulae, and putting zeroes every inch of the way.”

Just think. There’s probably an eight-year old somewhere who is going to “grok” a new term for infinity.

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