Interviews March 2006

Sniglets and Slithy Toves

The Atlantic's "Ms. Grammar" (aka Barbara Wallraff) talks about wordplay, recreational word coining, and her new book, Word Fugitives.
book cover

Word Fugitives: In Pursuit of Wanted Words
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Barbara Wallraff
Collins Press
208 pages

Let's suppose for a moment that your eighth-grade English teacher was wrong: infinitives may be split, prepositions may be final. And those vocabulary lists you memorized—picture them, then tear them up. What if the language were yours to play with? What if you could invent the words you needed?

"Word fugitives" is a term for the "empty mental spaces waiting to be filled" by newly coined words. This was the definition set out by Barbara Wallraff in her first installment of Word Fugitives—a column that originated as a feature on this Web site. Beginning in February 2001, readers were invited to submit meanings that lacked words and words that could fill the gaps. What do you call the act of trying to introduce two people when you've forgotten one of their names? Perhaps mumbleduction, ain'troduction, or introducking. What about the fear of running over squirrels? Flattenfaunaphobia, roadentaphobia, dentarodentaphobia, skiouroktonophobia, or swervousness.

What would the language experts say to this? Turns out, they think it's fun. "I use words that aren't in dictionaries all the time," writes Erin McKean, the editor in chief of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. "If people restricted themselves to using only what the dictionary-makers have already caught and tagged, I'd soon be out of work, and English would stagnate." McKean and other professional word gatherers join enthusiastic amateurs in Wallraff's new book Word Fugitives, which reassures us that taking language seriously needn't always mean being serious about language.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly. In addition to Word Fugitives, she writes a column called Word Court in which she settles readers' linguistic disputes. She worked as a copy editor at The Atlantic from 1983 until 2003, and she is the former editor of the trade newsletter Copy Editor. She also writes a weekly Word Court column for King Features Syndicate. She has written two previous books about language: Word Court (2000) and Your Own Words (2004).

I spoke with Wallraff by telephone on March 1.

—Joshua J. Friedman

Barbara Wallraff
Barbara Wallraff

I have coined a new word that I am certain is going to catch on. The word is floodite, and it's what you call an old-fashioned person who just discovered e-mail and is making up for lost time by filling your inbox with ancient jokes and dubious petitions. What is standing between floodite and an entry in the dictionary?

I am sorry to tell you this, but the major problem is that it's clever. If you want a new word to become an entry in the dictionary, it needs to be as low-key and normal as possible. A lot of words like floodite—and it is clever—cycle through the language in a temporary way, but they're more like little jokes that we're telling each other than permanent parts of the language. There are counterexamples, but they are very, very few.

Should we hold out hope that any of the new coinages suggested in Word Fugitives will eventually enter the language?

The thing is, Word Fugitives is a game. The words that people invent, they are not going to get into the dictionary. Recreational coining and actual coining are quite different. Coining words is instinctual. As little children we don't hear every single version of every word we are able to generate; patterns of language make themselves known to us—the way a past tense is formed, the way singular nouns are converted to plurals. Word Fugitives is something sophisticated for us to do with that instinct as adults—to put bits of existing words together to create new words for meanings that are more relevant to our lives than many of the old words in dictionaries. A hauberk and greaves, for example, are parts of the armor knights wore in the Middle Ages. Those are words in dictionaries, and they just never come up. So why can't we have new words that create more efficient ways of talking about contemporary life? We can, but the ones we're working on in Word Fugitives are more for the mental process of coining words and just the sheer fun of it than for creating new entries in the dictionary.

The idea that we can set aside the dictionary and allow our imaginations to invent new words for needs that we find in the world strikes me as a liberating one. Do you think people are sometimes intimidated by the dictionary—by its immense authority? Do they sense it looking over their shoulder?

Let's unpack that a bit. Is the dictionary an immense authority looking over people's shoulder? I wouldn't say so. Dictionaries have abdicated that authority. The editors of all of them will tell you that they are trying to describe language as it is used and not prescribe how it ought to be used. They may have usage notes that say, This usage of impact is frowned upon by many, and The American Heritage Dictionary will even explain why, but dictionaries don't think of themselves as authorities. They think of themselves as reporters of the language. Now, because I spent twenty years carefully reading every word that was going to appear in The Atlantic, and because, time was, I remember being as much as told that if a grammatical mistake appeared in the magazine, it wasn't the author's fault, it was mine, I do find it liberating to be working on types of writing that don't have that long tradition behind them. And I know readers enjoy it, too, because I get plenty of enthusiastic responses.

There are levels of language, and you can think of them as analogous to levels of dress. You don't want to wear blue jeans to a formal wedding, and you don't want to wear black tie to a barbecue. I have lots of experience with the level of language that has long been considered appropriate to The Atlantic, which is sort of like a nice professional gathering with people in suits—it's not especially formal, but it's also not especially informal, and most of the serious adult discourse is or tries to be at that level of language. But the same people still can put on their blue jeans and go out and play or put on a bathing suit and go dig in the sand at the beach and build a beautiful sand castle. That's what we're trying to do in Word Fugitives.

How long have people been coining English words recreationally?

I took an interest in this question when researching the book, and tracing back the history, you start to think, well, what is the difference between recreational word coining and regular word coining? Shakespeare, who is known for coining many words, certainly couldn't be called a recreational coiner, because he was using those words to get his meaning across as well as he could. And if we take a contemporary example—say, Harry Potter and the game of Quidditch—well, that was a new word because it was a new game: it was something that J.K. Rowling wanted to tell us about. So neither of these examples can properly be called recreational word coining. Recreational coining begins with the nonsense verses of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear in the 19th century: 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. In American English it goes back to a man named Gelett Burgess, who in 1914 published a dictionary of spurious words. (The only one of those that actually entered the language was blurb, which he had mean something close to what it means today.) That is about as far back as recreational coining goes, or at least as far back as we have any record of. But then came all this wonderful stuff—Sniglets in the 1980s and around the same time a book called The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams and his co-author John Lloyd repurpose an incredible collection of English place names. To choose an example more or less at random, they define ainderby quernhow as one who continually bemoans the "loss" of the word "gay" to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn't use it any more.

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