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.
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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.

That sounds like a word with fairly narrow application.

Well, I certainly know people who are sorry that gay doesn't mean what gay used to mean, and I like ainderby quernhow because it says to them, lighten up.

Right on the same page of the second edition, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, is ahenny, which is the favorite Liff word of Erin McKean, the editor-in-chief of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. Ahenny means the way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves. And you know what they mean: with a crooked neck.

So, I've got one of the longer bookshelves on recreational word coining in the English-speaking world, I would like to think. And I went through all the books and found the most amusing words in each of them and put them into a database. The database has about 700 made-up words, and, well, a lot of them seem credible. He stood ahenny by the bookshelves. I mean, if you saw that, would you know? Because these words were starting to blur in my mind with some of the more obscure words in the English language, I got some books of antique, obsolete, archaic, and dialectal dictionary words and put together a separate database of about 250 of my favorites of those. So in some of the sidebars in Word Fugitives I ask people if they can tell the real words apart from the made-up words. And I'll bet not many people will get that quiz 100 percent right.

The line between real and made-up words certainly seems blurry sometimes. One surprising fact that I learned from your book is that scofflaw was coined recently and deliberately.

That is a famous success in the world of conscious coining, though you wouldn't call it recreational coining. In the 1920s somebody wanted a word to describe those terrible people who didn't take Prohibition seriously. He offered a $200 prize, and scofflaw won. But the word doesn't quite do the job that it was asked to. Yes, a scofflaw is a lawbreaker, and that's a bad thing to be, but the word doesn't really make you detest scofflaws, which is what the person seeking the word wanted. Words take on a life of their own.

How did you start out in the word business?

I had friends who founded a graphic-design studio. They hired me to be the secretary, but it turned out I was really good at proofreading. Pretty soon I began saying, oh, this sentence isn't grammatical, or, wouldn't it be better to lop out these three words. So I began editing. Eventually I got tired of working on corporate language, and I struck out freelance to see what sort of work I could get. I began doing some work for the Boston Phoenix, and soon I was a 60-hour-a-week freelancer and they began to realize that they would be paying me less if they put me on staff. So they did, and I was there for a few years and became the editor of the lifestyle section. But I had always had my eye on The Atlantic. When Bill Whitworth became editor in chief I thought, well, if there's a new editor in chief he may need some new people. I sent him a letter and did some sample editing of galleys for him. He liked my work and kept me in mind for two years until he had a job for me; he brought me onto the staff of The Atlantic in 1983. So from 1983 until some point in 2003, I was reading every word in the magazine and approving it or improving it.

What did you enjoy about the job?

Working on things that were written by all these wonderful writers and seeing where even their writing might be improved—and having many of them agree with me. But if you do that for twenty years, you begin to think, wait a minute, I can write really well too. And all these writers have taught me things about writing. If you pay attention, you see how they do what they do and why they are better than other writers, and you internalize it.

So you began writing your Word Court column. I've noticed, by the way, that Word Court sometimes resembles those midday reality-TV courtroom shows in which real fights break out.

I particularly love those letters because people really care about what they're asking. And when somebody writes you and says, My husband and I are fighting about this and fills in some details, it is so much more evocative and—let's admit—interesting than if someone just asked the question. When you get to why people want to know the things they want to know, there is usually a really good human story there.

Is there one word fugitive that people keep asking for, even though you've already published an answer?

There isn't just one question—there are a bunch of questions. For instance, What should I call my children now that they're adults? The holy grail of contemporary word coining—and this is not recreational—is a singular personal pronoun that means he or she. The word thon was proposed for that use decades ago, and they actually put it in Webster's Second (at least in my edition, from 1954): a proposed genderless pronoun of the third person. They were taking their best guess that it was going to catch on. And it hasn't, and we still need that word.

In 1955 a dictionary editor, Albert H. Morehead, published a list of seven words that he felt the English language most needed, and one of them is that pronoun. You can read the whole list in one of my book's sidebars, but it also included "a dignified word to replace the slang boy friend," "a similar word for the woman in the case," "one brief, acceptable word to mean am not in questions" (because aren't I is ungrammatical and am I not sounds stilted), and "a polite but noncommittal word that means simply 'I acknowledge having heard what you just said.'" We still don't have these words, and we still need them. And we can make words up; we can love the words we make up; we can feel, well, that really nailed it; but we can't make them enter the language. The language is very democratic, and until a lot of people decide that this is a word that belongs in mainstream English it just doesn't happen. Nobody can make it happen.

Joshua J. Friedman is the managing editor of Boston Review.
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