Not so long ago — six or eight months, perhaps — we heard a young man describe something as “ginormous.” We were impressed. Although we had never heard the word, its meaning was obvious: gigantic plus enormous. How clever of this person, we thought, to coin such a fun, economical new way of saying really, really big.
Imagine our surprise, then, to hear ginormous popping up in another conversation just a few days later — and then on a Weblog, and in a movie review, and in an online chat, until it seemed every other person under the age of 25 was using it. There could be no doubt: We were witnessing the birth of a new word, or, as the language people primly say, a neologism.
The suspicion was confirmed last week when Merriam-Webster, one of the world’s leading English-language dictionary publishers, issued its 2005 list of Top 10 Favorite Words That Were Not in the Dictionary, based on submissions from thousands of visitors to the company’s Web site. There it was, topping the list: “ginormous (adj.): bigger than gigantic and bigger than enormous.” So, our acquaintance did not invent it, but someone, somewhere, clearly did, and it took root and bloomed, at least for this season.
Even if ginormous proves too faddish to make it into the real dictionary, it reminds us yet again how fluid and pulsating the language is. For neologisms are nothing new. (Ignore that Greek root “neo” — it applies to the words, not the practice.) As one language enthusiast — or should it be “languast”? — wrote in a recent online chat, “If it weren’t for neologisms, [James Joyce’s] ‘Ulysses’ would be about 30 words long, and Shakespeare just wouldn’t be Shakespeare.” The writer surely meant “Finnegan’s Wake” rather than “Ulysses,” but the point is sound. Neologisms are as old as English. What’s not so old is the ambivalence they seem to generate.
In Shakespeare’s day, the language was less hedged about with rules than it is now. The Bard spelled his name four or five different ways, apparently depending on his mood; his punctuation was flexible, to put it politely; and if he couldn’t find the perfect word for his purposes he made one up or adapted one. Some of those coinages withered, some thrived. Among the familiar terms he is credited with are aerial, dwindle, obscene, summit, bloodstained and leapfrog. Luckily for us, nobody objected. The words flowed seamlessly into everyday speech.
These days, word-crafting seems to cause more harrumphing among self-appointed preservers of the language (although not, apparently, all dictionary makers). Some have been heard to sniff that, while it may not be possible to ban neologisms, there ought to be rules or caveats. A new word should be shorter than an existing alternative, they say. It shouldn’t be cute. And it should be a last resort, given that English already abounds in underutilized words.
We hate to say it, because if the practice was good enough for Shakespeare it ought to be good enough for the rest of us, but those are all excellent points — with the possible exception of the first (it would rule out ginormous, which is one letter longer than both gigantic and enormous but so much more fun to say).
Consider some of Merriam-Webster’s other top new neologisms. No. 2 on the list, “confuzzled,” means confused and puzzled at the same time, but it doesn’t add spin, edge or wit and furthermore commits the sin of cuteness, as do Nos. 4 (“chillax,” chill out/relax) and 10 (“lingweenie,” a person incapable of producing neologisms), which is too clever by half. No. 6 (“gription,” the purchase gained by friction) could be useful, though you have to wonder what is wrong with just saying traction. And No. 7 (“phonecrastinate,” to put off answering the phone until caller ID displays the incoming name and number) may meet a linguistic and social need, but it’s too cute and too long. Coining durable words is not as easy as it looks.
Besides ginormous, there are only two words on the dictionary’s list that get our editorial nod of approval: No. 8, “slickery,” combining slick and slippery to describe a surface that is wet and icy, and No. 9, “snirt,” meaning the kind of dirty snow left on roadsides or parking lots after plowing. (At least winter will be less depressing this year if it gives us a chance to refer to a ginormous pile of slickery snirt.)
So, neologisms are amusing, useful, even necessary. They signify a flourishing language. But they can be silly, too, a kind of linguistic insider’s joke. Sometimes even native speakers feel like foreigners amid the buzz of unfamiliar words. For all of us, the trick is to listen, smile and wait. Time will sort out the keepers.
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