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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

A Word in Your Ear to Decipher

I sit in comfort but run the risk of chair-use disorder (addiction to physical inactivity) as I sort out the overnight crop of fresh words and expressions. In football news I find my team has been Vared (had a goal cancelled by the video assistant referee). It’s too early in the day to think about sex, and I pass over bootydelicious (an attractive backside). Strapline, I guessed right (a subsidiary heading or caption in a newspaper or magazine) but wrong in that it had a second meaning (a short, easily remembered phrase used by an organisation so that people will recognise it or its products).

No special  kickup (fuss) ahead on my day so I can continue to sort out verbal novelties.  Who knew you could also print (developers are accused of wanting to kick up toxic soil?). Which brings home the fact that distinctions have broken down between familiar language, slang and what used to be called standard prose. Blame the social media, technology or populism according to your mood. I couldn’t navigate in the choppy water of the page without turning to The Urban Dictionary (a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang words and phrases  founded in 1999 that at the start of 2014 featured over seven million definitions, while 2,000 new daily entries were being added). Today’s additions include pixel peeper that I never heard at my mother’s knee (a photography n00b who erroneously believes that the quality of a digital camera is determined solely by the number of megapixels). Never mind about the pixels, but what is a n00b? (a novice or newcomer, or somebody inexperienced in a profession or activity). Oh, come on, why not just say a newbie, newb, noobie, nub or some other fresh-minted N-word? No, not that one.

Wtf (written abbreviation for what the fuck, used, for example in text messages and social networking websites to show that one is surprised or annoyed, or does not care about something). I’m going brainsick (bonkers) with word traffic and feel a right dink (a New England term referring to someone being an idiot or even an asshole).

Better just sing the lyrics of Roads to Madness. They are overloaded with now’s, but I suppose that makes them contemporary (up2date).

Most of this is memory now

I've gone too far to turn back now

I'm not quite what I thought I was but

Then again I'm maybe more

The blood-words promised, I've spoken

Releasing the names from the circle

Maybe I can leave here now and

Oh, transcend the boundaries

My midday meal was no three-bottle-lunch (like the US three-martini-lunch, in the UK an extended noontime repast for plotting  journalists and Westminster politicians) that left me able to confront more new arrivals smeared with the blood of their predecessors. Looking for something digestive and elegiac, I come up with tragedy chanting. Wrong again, and I’m strong armed into football (when fans chant, or make offensive gestures, based on football-related tragedies, such as ninety-seven dead at Hillsborough, the murder of two Leeds United fans in Istanbul, the Munich air disaster of 1958 involving the Manchester United squad, the Heysel stadium disaster, or the Bradford stadium fire). But enough of the joys of the playing field. After all, I’m only one of the plastics ( football fans who aren’t fanatic).

Not that, to leave sports, I’m an anti-fan (one whose adoration of an influencer—a social media personalityhas flamed outbeen extinguished—and who begins to make scathing comments such as that a female star has grossly overdone lip enhancement or that a male combatted a beer belly with  liposuction—removing fat by surgery).

Alas, by teatime the candlepower of my morning Apache spark (a multi-language engine for executing data engineering) has sputtered out. New words threaten to silence me. I hurry to note a few too tasty to leave unspoken such as the euphemism unhoused person (a homeless individual); the coy throuples  (three people at play together); and the useful vlogger (to designate a blogger whose blog is of videos rather than text or images). And wait a moment! For sheer cockeyed charm, cuckooing (the takeover of someone’s home to use for illegal purposes like storing weapons or drugs).

Current verbal messiness makes me want to hark back to the golden age of inkwells and blotters. Quills pricked and pen points scratched while thumbs were numb with disuse. What is the study of history for, if not to escape the present? English had its inventors of words in those beaming days, but they were well behaved bookish elitists who could spell and do grammar. Of course, making their inventions known and assuring their survival depended on placing them in literary work that would also stay the course.

Lewis Carroll, the master neologist of English, published Through the Looking-Glass in 1871. His reputation assured its success. It contained the poem Jabberwocky whose title would become the English word for invented language. Portmanteau, meaning a two-section travelling bag, existed in English, but Carroll has Humpty Dumpty add word to it. The eggy blimp tells Alice:

“You see, it’s like portmanteau, there are two meanings packed up into one word.

It and Carroll left posterity some fine neologisms.  Slithy means lithe and slimy. Mimsy is from flimsy and miserable. To galumph, it made from gallop and triumph and chortle from chuckle and snort. But Carroll didn’t know when to stop and fruminous from fuming and furious never caught on. We have also indulged in excess and made Brexit from British and exit.

Edward Lear was into a different magic. He was a painter and brushed over Carroll’s mathematician’s nightmares. His made-up words pushed escapism beyond the  recipe for portmanteaus. Runcible, now in dictionaries, bears no explanation. When coerced into giving one, Lear nonsensically doubled down. He drew a spoon with a large round bowl that he claimed was  big enough for a “dolomphious duck” to catch spotted frogs in.

See  the The Owl and the Pussy-Cat:

They dined on mince and slices of quince,    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

Unliked Carroll, Lear often uses adjectives that have no connection, save sound and whimsy, with the nouns they modify:

His body is perfectly spherical,He weareth a runcible hat. 

There was an Old Man of Peru,

Who never knew what he should do;

So he tore off his hair,

And behaved like a bear,

That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.

What does Lear’s scroobious mean? In his unfinished poem The Scroobious Pip the entire  animal kingdom wanted to know:

Tell us all about yourself we pray!-

For to know you yourself is our only wish;

Are you beast or insect, bird or fish?

The Scroobious Pip looked softly round

And sung these words with a liquid sound-

          Pliffity Flip; Puffily Flip

My only name is the Scroobious Pip.

Scroobious, not to be confused with Scroobius, a drink made of Pepsi cola and gin, is still fighting for a place in high-toned dictionaries, which makes it questionable as a Scrabble term. But some lexicographers do define it with a touch of irony (a fictional character which does not have a general definition). Lear might say pliffity flip to that. His creations that have stayed in the collective memory are often the names of mythical places and people, such as, The Hills of Chankly-Bore or The Great Gromboolian Plain, The Dong with a Luminous Nose and The Pobble Who Has No Toes. Fits of depression are the morbids. The dumms are those who sing no more. Lear delights in veiling known words with new meanings. The Cummerbund, capital C, is an angry monster by a river that flows with soft melobious sound.

Most of the coinages of James Joyce, the multilingual panjandrum, can’t fit into any earthbound dictionary. Finnegans Wake’s first thunder-word is made from fragments of how the big noise of lightning is indicated in different languages: Hindustani: gargarahat, karak; Japanese: kaminari; Finnish: ukkonen; Greek: bronté (βροντή); French: tonnerre; Italian: tuono; Portuguese: trovão; Swedish: åska; Danish: torden; and Irish: tórnach. Which gives, Bababadalghara-ghtakamminarron-nkonnbronnto-nnerronntuo-nnthunntrovarr-hounawnsk-awntoohooho-ordenenthur-nuk, 100 of your 160 character-limit on SMS (Short Message Service).

Quark appears in Finnegans Wake to describe, among other things, the cry of the seagull. The physicist Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel 1969,  had been seeking a name for the  fundamental constituents of the nucleon. He fished in Finnegan, and the particles are now known as quarks. Joyce, for all his originality, has recourse to Lewis Carroll’s portmanteau. Smellsip has found dictionary space (to smell and sip almost simultaneously) and so should smilesmerked from Ulysses (supercilious with a flash of teeth).  Skeeze (to peer or leer), from the same book, seems right. However, Joyce-isms are often too finely exquisite or special and noisy to make it into the public word-hoard.

Now my wordy day has ended. Heavy with vocabulary new and old, I lay myself down beside my sleeping dictionary (a person who doesn’t speak your native tongue but you sleep with to learn the language and habits of the locals). Cf. (see, consult) The Urban Dictionary.

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