“One thing we have lost” lamented a tired John Steinbeck in his writer’s diary, “is the courage to make new words or combinations.”
Not in our house.
“I’ll see you tomorning” I throw words and kisses at my daughter’s dark room as she tucks herself under a mountain of covers and animals. It’s an economical word, her invention, a mix of “tomorrow” and “morning.” Like “tonight.”
My husband uses the word “prepone,” which means to move a meeting forward. Or move anything forward in time.
“Let’s prepone that to tomorning” we say in our house. Steinbeck would be proud.
Words absorb the energy of what they are meant to communicate. In doing so they become more than communicative tools, they become vocalizations of the human spirit.
“When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words” sings George Orwell in his memoir of the writing impulse.
When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost,
So hee with difficulty and labour hardMoved on: with difficulty and labour hee,
Which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling ‘hee; for ‘he’ was an added pleasure.
From George Orwell’s Why I Write
Have you ever noticed “gargantuan” and “orangutan” look remarkably alike? These sibling words met in a book I read recently and seemed to be hugging each other across the lines.
Scottish poet Nan Shepherd reaches into the old vernacular to find words like “blent” and “lucency” and “relume,” which she uses to reconcile image and communication.
Astonishment is in the Skies
Astonishment is in the skies;
The gilding waters murmur o’er
Songs that are their own surprise;
The trees ne’er looked like this before.
Thine is the ravishment they wear.
I turn from thee in such content
That where I go though still art there,
And all the world is with thee blent.
From Nan Shepherd’s In the Cairngorms and Other Poems
Do you know what “blent means?” Can you guess? Could Shepherd have described mountain light without it? 1
Science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin knew the power of unknown words. Resplendent words. She wrote worlds out of words her entire career. Believing the best expression of universal reality was in fantastical fiction.
Until fairly recently, the societies in and for which realistic fiction was written were limited and homogeneous. The realistic novel could describe such societies. But that limited language is in trouble now. To describe society since the mid twentieth century – global, multilingual, infinitely interlinked – we need the global, intuitional language of fantasy. García Márquez wrote his histories of his own nation in fantastic images of magical realism because it was the only way he could do it.
From Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter
“Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying” observed poet and creative writing teacher Richard Hugo. His words show eagerness to expand how we think and feel about the boundaries of language and the unsayable.
We creative writers are privileged because we can write declarative sentences, and we can write declarative sentences because we are less interested in being irrefutably right than we are in the dignity of language itself. I find words beautiful that ring with psychic truth and sound meant. If such a choice were possible, I would far rather mean what I say than say what I mean. To use language well requires self-sacrifice, even giving up pet ideas.
From Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town
Hugo gives us permission to use the odd word or the new word occasionally, powerfully, and without hesitation. Not because we want to be casual, but because we want to be expansive.
New words are grand, but let’s not forget the unexpected rhythm of the fully known. Do you remember in The Philadelphia Story when Katharine Hepburn replies – ironically, dismissively yet beauteously – when Jimmy Stewart tells her he hailed from South Bend, Indiana: “South Bend, it sounds like dancing.” Does it? It does when she says it.
I’ve always loved the word “portmanteau.” It suggests a coat, a harbour, a suitcase, a buffalo caped in snow. It means a word formed by combining two or more existing words that all relate to a single concept. “Tomorning” is a portmanteau.
I commensurately dislike the term “pore-over.” Not only is it trite, but how does it work? Am I dumping myself into something, embodying it? Am I filing it’s pores? Am I in liquid form? Then why is it not pour?2
The word “masticate” seems misplaced, too. Dishonest. With all those consonants, it must be something horrible! Nope, it’s just chewing. A baby masticates creamed corn. Drop that at playgroup.
The word “walkie-talkie” strikes me as odd. It’s so… jejune. Especially when you consider the device was invented in 1937 by a man working in conjunction with the U. S. Military. What if guns were called “bangy-killie?” Would they be easier to use?
Talking of words, have you used “algorithm” lately? It has only recently entered my ken, and seems to be on the make. The moment it enters my reading matter, on the screen or on the page, I am wary; I fear that there is discomfort to come, either because the reading matter is going to be too intellectual for me, or because the use of the noun (assuming it is a noun) portends pretensions to come. It’s a pity, because I like the word itself, with its graceful shape and obvious Arab origins, but alas it is not yet my style.
From Jan Morris’ Thinking Again
What a time we’re in. A renowned writer and journalist like Morris, who throws her intellect into words like “ken”, “portends,” and “pretensions,” is intimidated by the word “algorithm.” Not simply the word but its culture and usage.
I know just what she means.
We all feel “discomfort to come” about language. There seems to be an elite set of people “in the know” who speak a language that is same but separate, whose intelligence seems to preclude. For me it’s anything related to technology.
Regardless, I make up and misuse words all the time. Not to confuse but to expand. I see words for their resplendent possibility rather than their exact certainty.
New words and meanings are a springboard to new thinking. New thinking is messy and confusing. But the discomfort of not knowing needn’t be lasting.
Morris, at the then age of ninety-three, agrees:
Never mind. “Algorithm” is a lovely word, a noble, graceful word, and it moves me to learn that it comes (I don’t quite know how) from the ninth-century surname of Abu Ja ‘far Mohammed Ben Musa. I can’t find him in my Encyclopedia of Islam, but I think I’ll start using the word myself, algoristically, just to amuse him.
There is always room for new words. New meanings. We are all opsimaths. – the great student and teacher Stephen Fry promises of the aged mind. I shall use that word tomorning.