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  • The Diacritics 9:03 pm on October 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 42, douglas adams, hitchhiker's, meaning of life, new words, word creation   

    The Meaning of Liff and words that should be words 

    Hi everyone! Sandeep and I have both been super busy with law school stuff, much to the detriment of our aspirations to post all the time. We promise to get back on the ball, though, so stay tuned!

    (posted by John)

    Many of us know and love Douglas Adams for his famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. They’re some of my favorites, not least because of Adams’s creative and awesome use of language. But as cool a word as bistromatics is, Hitchhiker’s doesn’t come close to the word-creating prolificacy of another little book of his, The Meaning of Liff. This book is entirely devoted to words that should exist to explain common (and sometimes not-so-common) scenarios, sensations, occurrences, and other phenomena, but that do not.

    Here are a couple examples:

    BRUMBY (n.) 
The fake antique plastic seal on a pretentious whisky bottle.

    PLEELEY (adj.)
Descriptive of a drunk person’s attempt to be endearing.

    THRUPP (v.) 
To hold a ruler on one end on a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrrddrr.

    WRITTLE (v.)
 Of a steel ball, to settle into a hole.

    This got me thinking about another word that I think should exist. It’s not one nearly as creative as any of Adams’s, but I think it is more logically a word than most of his.

    I know that I can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of my Civil Procedure reading and underwhelmed by the sheer monotony of its content, but can I just be “whelmed” by it? I think this would be a good word to start using: it would fill a linguistic gap in our language just like lots of the words in Liff would.

    Let’s say you went to the movies recently to see Moneyball.  If you thought it was just about at the level of your expectations, you could say you were “whelmed” by it.  This is different from “it was fine,” or something of that ilk, in that it is talking about the movie’s quality with respect to your expectations, whereas to say it was “fine” is to make a more objective statement of its quality.  It would be particularly useful if my friend knew that I really liked Aaron Sorkin, one of the writers: if I were “whelmed” by it, it would mean that it met my expectations pretty darn well (and I could convey that with one word!).

    It would also be useful for other things. If you have a particularly busy week at work, you might say that you are overwhelmed. But there’s not a good way to talk about being almost overwhelmed. I find myself in this state with some frequency: just barely keeping my head above water, but still breathing. I think that “whelm” would get at this idea nicely. If you’re “whelmed” at work, you’re busy and might soon become overwhelmed, but for now, you’re getting by.

    Interestingly, “to whelm” already means something different.  My dictionary widget gives it as a verb “to engulf, submerge, or bury.” The raging ocean might whelm a floundering ship. A brook can also “whelm,” or flow, up from its source.  It’s also given as a noun,“an act or instance of flowing or heaping up; a surge.”

    This doesn’t mean we can’t also use it in a new way (who uses it right now anyway?). When I’m less whelmed with work, perhaps I’ll start a campaign to spread the word!

    We’d be interested to hear of other words like “whelm,” or even NAD ((n.) 
Measure defined as the distance between a driver’s outstretched fingertips and the ticket machine in parking garage), that don’t exist, but should!

    • stuartnz 9:08 pm on October 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The Meaning of Liff is a great book, but it should be noted that Adams does not claim to have “created” those words. He said that they were pressed into service instead of hanging around on road signs and the like. He created definitions for them, which is, surely the hardest part of the job. Your mention of “whelm” also reminded me of one of my favourite Wodehouse passages: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”

    • johnwcowan 10:40 pm on October 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Yes, the over- in overwhelm is basically just an intensive.

      I used to work in a center at my college that specialized in resolving student problems with registration or payment. We called it the Gruntling Room: the students came in disgruntled and left gruntled.

      • johnwcowan 11:10 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        For those of you not reading The World’s Major Languages, gruntle is an intensive of grunt and related to grumble; it’s mostly applied to pigs nowadays. The dis- prefix is also just an intensive in this word, a common meaning of dis- in Latin but quite rare in English.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , new words,   

    Frenemy, pls refudiate haters 

    Posted by Sandeep

    Around every new year, I have fun looking at different dictionaries’ and publications’ lists of “the new words” of the year. Sociolinguistic commentators always have a field day around every January: Some loudly lament the decline of English, and others marvel at the flexibility of our language. Everyone seems to love a good invective against modern society—but why do we care about change in language so much?

    Natural systems are dynamic; any scientist will argue that. But most things man-made—from buildings to morals—strive to achieve an intrinsic stability. Nature fluctuates, but the concrete and the abstract of man-made creations are designed to be constant. Language, one of the most fundamentally human of characteristics, straddles this dichotomy. It is at once a natural system encoded into society and into the human brain—an ability to process and synthesize communicative gestures of the same species—as well as a synthetic system based on arbitrarily assigning sounds and symbols to the human experience.

    As such, language might be torn between natural drift and conscious shift in ways that no mathematical or historical model will ever be able to describe or predict.

    Amid this complexity, change in language—a perceived or documented shift in semantics, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or writing—has engaged humanity because it is associated with some of the most important elements of the human condition: culture, identity and the origin of man.

    We know at least some of the why of language change. Cultures attack, conquer and interact with one another. Language academies are created and maintained for the explicit purpose of standardizing written and spoken forms because there’s a historically and geographically universal perception that society in general and language in particular is falling precipitously from a refined past. Certain forms of grammar and vocabulary are stigmatized and others are praised; the same ones might be conversely mocked and admired by different groups. The inherent variability in the human experience, a necessary component for any change, allows that when different cultures interact, there is a productive exchange of ideas and language.

    This is all well and good. We can name what has happened and offer some explanations as to why these changes occurred. I have shown above that language is inconstant: This much every linguistics student knows. But if language is a man-made system, then it was created to be constant. Man works toward homeostasis.

    Language, ostensibly, arose because certain neural pathways more complex than those of our predecessors allowed for abstract thought and the use of symbols. This adaptive development allowed for complex social interactions and communication that made one Homo species more fit than another.

    And yet, as humans, we—by the same or different neural mechanisms—are capable of reflection on our behavior in a way that hasn’t been observed in other animals. So for the entire history of our species, where we are today is as much a product of natural forces as it is deliberate choice. Taken into context, if humans use language to communicate, and if language is useless without facilitating communication, then we ask why vocabulary isn’t finite and syntax isn’t fixed—this would seem to be the most effective way to ensure meaningful interaction. But the point is that it’s not.

    This problem has occupied researchers and still isn’t resolved—but will it ever be?

    It seems to me that change in language might be such a complex, multifaceted, multivariable process that we may never be able to understand how all of the forces work together in one whole, coherent way such that we’ll be able to competently describe or predict past and future change in every respect. Language is natural and synthetic and neither, and it displays trends characteristic of both and none. Human behavior, the human mind and human interactions are all inconceivably complex variables. Linguists might always be consigned to dividing up language change into neat parcels and analyzing the hell out of each. This might not be such a desperate thing to do.

    As long as we recognize that the entirety of language change defies conclusive explanation, we can concern ourselves with functional explanations of certain trends in a way that is useful and productive.

    Even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms and processes of language change, it would be silly to believe that our language is declining: It’s difficult to objectively characterize any change as degradation. We’re not moving toward some end-goal, no matter what sort of a harbinger the “texting generation” is. The truth is that every generation has always experienced language change and called it decline. Change is just change.

    As far as I’m concerned, the “new words of the year” lists are only useful in reminding me how woefully square (we’re still using that word, right?) I am.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on January 13, 2011.)

    • JP 9:57 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Like this piece, except, maybe, the third paragraph. It works well rhetorically, but we don’t really know that. Got here via languagehat.com and think I will be a regular..:-) Saudações from Brazil.

    • johnwcowan 3:45 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Well, we don’t always seek homeostasis. In particular, we know that some language change happens in order to differentiate an in-group: notable cases are the characteristic Martha’s Vineyard phonology, which is actually more common in young people now than it is among their parents (who were trying to assimilate to off-islander English), and the Northern Cities Chain Shift, which seems to be a way of differentiating white Northern Americans from black Americans and Canadians.

      • The Diacritics 11:34 am on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Right. There are a few really well-known examples of people consciously changing their speech. What I meant to say was that at any given point, people want stability in their language — it wouldn’t do to have the meaning of, say, “table” change from day to day. We seek homeostasis in describing our world within our communities.

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