Wednesday, January 2, 2013

They're All Made Up!

My mother laughed heartily, as we all looked at her, wondering why she was so full of mirth. “It’s funny!” she insisted. It’s not something we think about a lot, so I figured that she was just taken aback by the truth of my statement, and so I repeated, “Well, it’s true: all words are made up words.”

It’s interesting to think about the birth of language, because at some point, somebody had to string grunted syllables together to take the meaning of complex concepts. I’m sure it wasn’t decided in a committee, nobody sat around comparing notes, and there wasn’t an appointed Word Decider. 

Language began the way it meant to go on: as something malleable. Words don’t mean the same things that they did one hundred, fifty, or even twenty years ago. New inventions have been dreamed up, new ways to interact with other people have become available, and we want to talk about them. Usually, instead of thinking of a brand new way to express our brand new ideas, we borrow and steal from other words, or mash a couple of different ones together.

I’ve always enjoyed portmanteaus, or the putting together of existing words to make a new word or phrase, and I am a fan of books or programs that use them frequently. It’s why I giggle at things like Strong Bad emails, and admire the genius that The Brothers Chaps have for portmanteaus. “Barbzerdry” (barber wizardry), “keyswordtar” (keytar is already a portmanteau of “keyboard” and “guitar,” “keyswordtar” just adds a sword), and “Decemberween” are a few of their best.

Another thing I love is authors who play with sounds and make up words from there. That’s one of the many reasons I love Dr. Seuss so much. I’m sure the world could do without words like “yopp,” “quimney,” and “fiffer-feffer-feff,” but one “Seussword” (I just made that one up just now) that we’ve come to love and use every day is “nerd,” which first appeared in his book If I Ran the Zoo. A “nerd” was originally an animal from a place called Ka-Troo, but became synonymus with the words “drip” and “square” when Newsweek used it that way in 1951. We don’t use those two words like that anymore, but “nerd” is hanging in there, even though the definition has changed enough for those of us who identify as one to be proud of it.

It would be very interesting to study the impact that William Shakespeare’s work has had on the English language. I would hate to see the state of the language without it.

I make up my own words (most often, influenced by these geniuses). My daughter will occaionally have a diaper that’s “stinktastic!” Or I’ll take a kleenex to a tiny nose that’s a bit “pffarglley” (you’ve got to pronounce the first two letters). And I’m not sure anyone can remember which of the nicknames I came up with went with which of my brothers: “Ootsnog” and “Snargblig.”

Words are funny. And, what’s funnier, to some people, is remembering the fact that they’re all made up.

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