Monday, September 8, 2008

Google Tech Talk: Hacking English

Since my last post on a Google tech talk was such a hit (well, as much as anything on a blog that averages 10 visits/day can be considered "a hit"), I've been meaning to blog about another great talk I attended. It was called "Wordmaking: What it takes to succeed in hacking English and invent a new word," and was much more light-hearted than the talk on plurilingualism. Here's the abstract:

Learn the basics of word formation in English, get "raw materials" for new words, and invent your own word (and have it critiqued) before you let it loose into the English language. The maker of the "best new word" (as voted on by the participants) will win a new dictionary.

The speaker was Erin McKean, a dictionary evangelist, lexicographer and editor of dictionaries. She's a very entertaining speaker, and even has a Murphy's Law-style law named after her:

McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.

The talk was about the productivity of English (the degree to which it lends itself to making up new words that other English-speakers can understand), and the building blocks that make that possible. English has inherited a lot of words and grammar from various language families (principally Germanic and Latinate), so English speakers have a lot of morphemes (the building blocks of words) to play around with—prefixes, suffixes, different roots that mean the same thing.

I think my favorite part of the talk was the obvious glee that Erin took in playing with language, and all the new words I learned (both "real" and made-up) from her talk. Here are my favorites, which I encourage you to incorporate into your daily speech:

catachresis (n.)
A linguistic error that comes to be accepted as "correct," usually because it's so common.
Examples: apron used to be napron, but people heard "a napron" and started interpreting it as "an apron." Strait-laced is more commonly misspelled as straight-laced than correctly spelled; so who's to say how long the "incorrect" version remains incorrect, if a majority of people are using it?
epicene (adj.)
Example: English-speakers have been trying to invent an epicene singular pronoun for years, but none have ever really stuck so we usually end up saying "they" even for singular referents.
nonce (adj.)
A nonce word is a particularly time- or place-specific word (which is thus unlikely to catch on as a word that survives the test of time).
Examples: Excaliburger, comcastic.
pregret (n.)
The knowledge that you're about to do something you will later regret having done.
See also: prevenge.

The word that I'd like to get traction for is kez, meaning "fake cheese, or any plastic-like substance trying to pass itself off as cheese." Which brings me to this great website I heard of recently via Says You, a public radio show that every linguaphile should check out:, where you can make up words, vote on other people's submissions, or submit definitions in search of words. Go to Addictionary and vote for my word.

Have you coined any words?


Jopesche said...

Ooo, me! I came up with "smicon" while writing my masters thesis, meaning smell icon, after "earcon" and "phicon". They get used occasionally in academic work -- and for a while were on some FAA intro-to-human-factors webpage, which was sorta cool. Not exactly a huge claim to fame, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

Actually, under the definition of "epicene", it should read, "...none HAS ever really stuck..."

"None" is singular. (Think of it as a contraction of "not one".) When used as the subject of a sentence, it takes a singular predicate.

Naturally, in accordance with McKean's Law, I invite you to examine this comment for grammatical, spelling, or typographical errors.