Quintneology: Five Easy Ways to Invent Words That People Will Use Every Day
All writers must solve a problem: how best to tell a story with the language available to them. From dialogue to exposition, purple prose to blue language, there are many tools at their disposal to bring their worlds to life.
But what happens when the English language itself fails them, and the words they need simply do not exist?
Shakespeare is famous for inventing the words that he needed (somewhere between 422 and 1700 depending on your definition of ‘invent’), including those now so commonplace as ‘accommodation’, ‘bedroom’ and ‘downstairs’.
If you want to leave your own mark on the English language, you have a few different options open to you:
Turn an object into an action:
‘Verbing’ is the term for turning a noun into verb. The very word ‘verbing’ has done just that, taking the noun ‘verb’ and turning it into an action to describe the action of turning itself into an action.
That just makes my head spin.
Still, this is a common occurrence and often involves brand names:
‘Yesterday, I looked up my neighbour on Google, called them on Skype to say hello, and then added them to my list of friends on Facebook’ has become the much less formal ‘I googled my neighbour, skyped them and friended them on Facebook.’
How happy must those marketers be that their brand names are fast becoming part of everyday English?
Smush two existing words together
Ever worn a pair of jeggings, or are you guilty of manspreading? Or maybe you live in a McMansion? That’s just fantabulous. If you can spot a phenomenon that takes too many words to describe, why not splice them all together?
While cyber and cybernetics are derived from the Greek kybernan (to steer or govern), science fiction author William Gibson first used the word cyberspace, to describe computer networks, in a short story titled ‘Burning Chrome’ in 1982 and again in 1984 in his novel ‘Neuromancer’.
Chop bits off existing words
Some words are just too much of a mouthful to pronounce when in context. Cut a bit off and see if it gets picked up by a dictionary somewhere.
J.R.R. Tolkien first coined the term tween for beings in those awkward adolescent years, which, in the lifecycle of a hobbit, were the twenty-somethings, those who were in-between childhood and coming of age at 33 years old. While there are plenty of human twenty-somethings to whom the description ‘awkward adolescent’ may still apply, on a human-scale tween has come to mean people who have reached the age of double digits but are not yet official ‘teenagers.’
Borrow from other languages
Ever laughed at somebody falling over? Aside from being called a jerk, English did not have a specific word for you being amused at someone else’s pain until schadenfreude made its way over from German.
Adam Hills, in his show Characterful, has suggested that Scheissenbedauern is another German word that should make its way over to English, to describe the feeling of disappointment you get if things aren’t as bad as you thought. Picture yourself winding up for an argument with extended relatives at Christmas lunch, but it turns out they were more reasonable than you were expecting and the argument never took place. The disappointment that you felt at not being able to call your second cousin by any number of deliciously insulting names is Scheissenbedauern.
However, it turns out that Scheissenbedauern isn’t an authentic German word (although it does consist of existing German words, one of which is quite rude) but it was made up by an American, which brings us right to:
Just make one up that sounds good
Language can’t always keep up with the needs of society, and there is nothing that would stop you making up a word from scratch, as long as it is pronounceable and at least looks like it follows normal grammatical rules.
In fact, the YouTube channel Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows was a web series all about doing just that – inventing plausible sounding words for powerful emotions that do not have a singular word to describe them, including pâro for the feeling that everything you do is wrong, and zenosyne for the feeling that time passes more quickly the older you get. There has been studies about why that happens, but it seems that no-one else has yet invented a word for it.
So why not have a go yourself? Comment below with some words that you have invented and lets expand the English language!
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