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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Rapping in the Heat

Aggiornamento: 11 apr 2023

Words, words, words, Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

In the infancy of any language, inventing words has to be the busiest game in town. Once youth’s hormones settle into a rhythm, however disquieting, more than invention is called for. Ear-catching coupling of words and the setting in stone of pet phrases begins. Shakespeare more than anyone else did this for English. His times helped, as did his extraordinary gifts. He found there were not enough words in English to say what he had to say and so made a number up and put them memorably to work. No more than life and history, the invention of words has never stopped. English little by little weaned itself off Old French and Greco-Latin models.

Victorians honed the art of euphemism and special pleading in their word arrangements. A particular turn of phrase could bolster political power. Henry Stanley affixed the dark continent to Africa, insinuating that it was time for white men to turn on the lights there. Rudyard Kipling would extend the idea with most of the world becoming the white man’s burden, a situation that could only be eased with a good dose of colonial exploitation, robust soldiery and missionaries along for the ride. The Polish (expat) Joseph Conrad coined the Heart of Darkness to add feeling to the picture. It was the title of his novella that exposed the cruelty of colonialism without shaking off his own white superiority. Africans were left wearing his quotable words, the horror, the horror like name tags around their necks.

The 19th-century kept minting words with an ideological slant. To kruger-spoof meant to tell lies. Paul Kruger led South Africans against the British in the Boer War. The Irish were bogtrotters and therefore merited subjection to Westminster. Invented in name and metal in 1872, the penny-farthing bicycle rolled past quickly. Its front wheel was like a six-foot-high copper penny and the rear wheel like a tiny farthing coin. Some cute Victorian fabrications have died out. Bricky meant brave or fearless. A gigglemug was an habitually smiling face. A church-bell, someone who wouldn’t shut up.

Victoria grew old with the century leaving its last years drowsy with respectability. Word invention continued, of course, but careful not to break any of the rules of decency which extended to covering the bare legs of parlour furniture. Lewis Carroll’s solution was nonce words, meaningless, one-offs that once heard could be discarded. This is the beginning of his poem Jabberwocky:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll, the pseudonym of an Oxford prof of mathematics and feverish amateur photographer is linked in spirit to a bolder verbal invention of later date. His camera was drawn to young girls abloom with puberty. Vladimir Nabokov (expat) in his 1955 novel, Lolita, would unveil the term nymphet.

No one was less bold than Edward Lear in his expat’s nest at San Remo. His solution to respecting decency was a love poem between partners so ill-matched as to rule out anything but musical conjunction.


The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea

In a beautiful pea-green boat,

They took some honey, and plenty of money,

Wrapped up in a five-pound note.

The Owl looked up to the stars above,

And sang to a small guitar,

"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,

What a beautiful Pussy you are,

You are,

You are!

What a beautiful Pussy you are!"


Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl!

How charmingly sweet you sing!

O let us be married! too long we have tarried:

But what shall we do for a ring?"

They sailed away, for a year and a day,

To the land where the Bong-Tree grows

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood

With a ring at the end of his nose,

His nose,

His nose,

With a ring at the end of his nose.


"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.

Wary of moralists, Lear to be doubly safe threw in marriage for the pair. Runcible in the last stanza is one of his several invented words. They are generally preposterous and harmless, scroobious wizzeby, dolomphious. He called houseflies buzztilential, keeping his ire for insects, never offending any of the Queen’s subjects.

New American words and sayings of those years often touched on the sweep westward. General Philip Sheridan summed them up: The only good Indian is a dead Indian. Chief Crazy Horse’s translation of his title, Ogle Tanka Un, as Shirt-Wearer drew a sneer from the military. In line with government policy they spun defeat as treachery. For the U.S. Army the victory of the Lakota and Cheyenne was called the Fetterman Massacre. For the native American victors, it was the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand.

The post-Civil War saw the appearance of scalawags to denote Lincoln-supporting white Southerners. Carpetbaggers were white chancers from the North come to profit from the confusion. It also saw the Greek word for circle, κύκλος, inventively turned into Ku Klux Klan. Technology reared its hard head with donkey engine, a small locomotive used in switching. Robber barons were the tycoon brotherhood of Vanderbilt, Gould, Rockefeller and Carnegie. The muckrakers were the writers who denounced them. Their moniker if forgotten was not really new. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress spoke of “The Man with the Muckrake…who could look no way but downward.” The mugwumps had more claim to verbal originality. They were members of the Republican Party that bolted and came to stand for neutrality.

President Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for much verbal embellishment. He called his faction the Bull Moose Party, as president said he commanded the bully pulpit and inspired the first teddy bear toy. He embodied Manifest Destiny, a phrase that meant the United States was destined by God to expand its dominion far and wide. As Undersecretary of the Navy, ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt underwrote the slogan To Hell with Spain, Remember the Maine that recalled the provocation triggering the Spanish-American War.

We too have our wars, the boom-boom kind and the battle of the sexes. Mansplaining is the explanation of something by a man to a woman in a condescending manner. womansplaining has not yet appeared in print. However, westplaining has shown up in relation to the war in Ukraine and the expression can look forward to a large progeniture.

That has been the story of sportswashing, a corporation or government using sport to improve their tarnished reputation. Greenwashing quickly followed, meaning a company more concerned with selling itself as sustainable than on actually minimising its environmental impact. And along comes bluewashing, joining a charity in order to wield corporate influence in policy making. Not to forget pinkwashing (can you guess?) that appropriates LGBTQ lingo—(ouch! you look that up) to promote a product.

The squeezing of new meanings from words never stops. To upcycle is to recycle something discarded to obtain something better. An ableist discriminates against the handicapped. Co-sleeping is not one more celebrity scandal but a social science term for innocent bed-sharing within a family.

Hold on. Let’s talk about about wet-bulb temperature (WBT). It doesn’t sound ominous but wait. High temperatures do people no good but combined with humidity they are lethal. Put a wet cloth on the bulb of a thermometer and the evaporating water from the cloth will cool the thermometer down giving you the WBT, the difference of the two temperatures. If the surrounding air is saturated with humidity, the evaporation from the cloth will be less and you will have trouble sweating to cool yourself and….

Will we ever catch up? It seems not. New meanings from old words keep erupting like bad weather. I wade into suave Professor Alan Finlayson’s article in the literate London Guardian of July 31, 2022. It’s a treasure trove for the happy hunter of tortured derivations but an ordeal for the reader in a hurry. What the devil is a cakeist? Alright, I should have guessed it from the expression, Have your cake and eat it. Snowflake is familiar enough these days as a political insult for a too sensitive liberal or millennial. But there’s no guessing that cosplay means dressing up like and acting out the roles of celebrities. Merch is guessable as merchandise, I suppose, but not before morning coffee. Why a spad denotes someone who can’t hold his liquor evades me all day long till counting sheep in bed it dawns on me that it’s an acronym of Signal Passed At Danger.

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