August 19, 2005

Fake Words

Some weeks ago, I was on the subway and in a particularly relaxed state of mind. A teenage boy of a certain type was walking down the car, and I had the idea of exercising my language faculties by describing him to myself. But my mind was some kind of loose, at that moment, and I found myself using words that don’t exist. Specifically, I remember thinking that the boy had

a gewy, thuggish murmance

about him.

I assure you that these words came naturally; they were not the result of any kind of attempt to invent new words. Rather, I seized on certain things about the boy I wanted to verbalize, and then refused to put conscious thought into the word-picking process. I simply let my mind cast the sentence, in a single mental impulse, out of whatever materials it chose. I focused only on meaning, not words, and then misled my brain into believing that no more attention was necessary.

I’m explaining all this because I think the words that came out are pretty good. I enjoyed them then and I enjoy them now.

To understand what they mean, you first have to know what the boy looked like. He was wearing a loose basketball-style jersey and had sort of a dead look in his eyes; he was tall and thin and his shoulders and arms were muscular in a ropy way, where each muscle seemed clearly defined from the others. He looked pale in an eastern-European way. He was making his way slowly down the car, letting his body sort of lean and bob and lazily reach for the poles as he walked. There was something lightly threatening about his blank expression and his lanky muscledness and his irregular, animal-like movements. I felt, looking at him, that this “something” was familiar to me, that I’d seen it before, and that I should therefore be able to describe it in such a way that it could be identified as being…what it was.

So that should help get at what gewy means. It has to do with the tall, thin, ropy look, and also connotes that a thing is blankly ominous or semi-threatening. It’s not necessarily a visual description, though it can be.

Thuggish is a real word and is used properly.

Murmance is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the overall vague suggestion created in your mind in response to something. Extremely useful word; it should always be used, as here, as though it refers to an attribute of the stimulus itself, even though it fundamentally describes the beholder’s impression. That book has a nostalgic murmance.

I’m half-joking, telling you how these words are to be used, but half not. I’m certainly not “making it up.” My knowledge of these words was instantaneous and thorough, as soon as they came into existence. I assure you that I could answer, with complete and non-arbitrary confidence, any question put to me about the usage of these words.

Anyway, this experience was oddly gratifying, and later, again on the subway, I tried to recreate the mental process, with good results, though I neglected to write the words down and have forgotten most. I do remember that the poles in the subway car were best described, collectively, as frial (vertical, immovable, dignified, mute and perhaps mysterious, but also unimpressive).

All these words came easy. My mind was ready and willing to do this task; I’m sure everyone’s can do it. I’m personally not much of a poet, but it seems to me that there is a lot of untapped potential here for art. Now, the obvious problem with using invented words is whether the words will convey to readers what they’re supposed to mean, but I think two things: a) they will if they’re really good, because the really good ones are linguistically well-formed and thus intuitable (like the word “intuitable,” for example); and b) readers are extremely willing to assume they understand a word based on contextual assumptions.

When I would read difficult books as a child, I would fill in the meanings of lots and lots of new words with my context-based deductions.* In fact, the words that I was defining for myself would tend take on meanings much more nuanced than their real dictionary definitions. These words, when they first appeared, were implicitly assumed to be full of subtle and exquisitely appropriate connotations, and would frequently also pick up bits of meaning from their apparent linguistic relatives. Even after at least 10 years of knowing the truth, it has been almost impossible for me to shake off the compelling notion that the word “bemused” (= confused, bewildered) might mean a type of confusion that is just slightly shaded by “amused.” It in fact does not mean that. But what a much more valuable word it would be if it did. I tend to use it that way.

So why not use fake words more often? Readers – at least young readers – are perfectly ready to start providing suitable meaning when the text isn’t clear. A fake word can be the perfect empty mold for a concept that is better served by contextual and semantic implication than by any word currently in the OED.

Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is the classic, best-loved example of fake wordery. But those words are used to a different effect than I’m proposing; Carroll wants his words first of all to be funny in their silly pseudo-antiquation (it’s sort of a parody of Beowulf, right? I have always assumed that Carroll was poking fun at the alien quality of earlier forms of English) and second of all, he enjoys the fact that they do not describe real things and thus do not “mean” anything in particular, but rather only “might mean” one of several things. When the hero comes “galumphing back,” we might – good lord, Microsoft Word doesn’t accept “nuanced” but it accepts “galumphing” – we might have a rough idea of what galumphing is, but we intentionally cannot have a specific idea. Carroll never intended to allow for a truly specific understanding. I am talking about using fake words to convey specifics.

Another classic example is Finnegans Wake, but once again that’s something different. Joyce’s text is in many ways quite the opposite to what I’m describing – a semantic scramble produced not from the natural impulses of the linguistic mind of a fluent English speaker, but rather from a calculated, intentionally wide-ranging mish-mash of stuff. His “portmanteau words” do not attempt to create new definite meanings out of the combination of two or more old words – they create a state of simultaneity of multiple meanings, overlapping but unresolvable, in attempt to recreate certain characteristics of dream thought. There is no definition for hierarchitectitiptitoploftical, just a constellation of connotation. No part of Finnegans Wake is true description, because it is always multi-layered. By contrast, I am proposing using created words as part of a scheme of otherwise fairly standard communication.

I started thinking about this yesterday (weeks after the initial gewy murmance) because I was reading Michel Houellebecq’s essay about H.P. Lovecraft (review to come very shortly). In it, Houellebecq defends Lovecraft’s hopeless stylistic offenses; most prominent among them: wildly overblown yammering when attempting to depict overwhelming horror. Houellebecq essentially argues that these passages – rhythmic streams of beloved adjectives (eldritch cosmic miasmal Cyclopean yada yada) – are justified, because they are a means of expressing dreamlike extremes of horror and awe that are too strong to be touched by any kind of restrained, stylistically “proper” writing. Okay, well, he doesn’t exactly come out and say that, but I think it’s what he believes; I’m filling in the blanks for him.

Anyway, I certainly respect the idea that words, as we normally use them, tend to be associated not with the intensity and variety of real experience, but rather with the mild, controlled world of other words. I furthermore recognize that the multi-applicability of words is a liability when it comes to their expressive impact. Since we are able, for example, to apply the word “vast” both to interstellar space and to the produce selection at a good supermarket, the word “vast” cannot carry the burden of meaning that Lovecraft would like it to carry when referring to some nightmarishly enormous structure. One has the choice of either seeking out a less common, more specific word, or refining “vast” with additional adjectives. This latter option is the standard strategy (for everyone, not just Lovecraft). This is unfortunate, from a certain point of view, since the “oh my god so big”-ness of the “vast” thing feels like a single characteristic that ought therefore to be described in a single semantic unit, not triangulated by a web of mutually qualifying adjectives. Lovecraft, for all his outlandish strings of descriptives, did seem to desire other ways out of the problem. So he dug up obscure words unsullied by mundane overuse; in this case, “Cyclopean,” among others.

But, I say, why didn’t he just go all-out and invent his own? After all, the fact that the word “eldritch” is not his invention is something most people have to look up; I know of no other writers who have ever used it. For his purposes, the word would have worked equally well had it been a pure coinage. And he obviously respected the power of aesthetic responses to non-lexical words; his lovingly crafted, barely-pronounceable alien nonsense (Cthulhu fhtagn, anyone?), though it’s not exactly my cup of tea, shows a clear interest in achieving literary-poetic-linguistic effects that required actual phonological invention.

So, I’m saying, it’s too bad that even an adventurous hack like Lovecraft, whose only literary objective was to inspire a sense of having gone beyond the ordinary, still didn’t feel free to populate his prose with newly coined words. After all, rather than calling a thing “Cyclopean,” wouldn’t it be more truly dreamlike to say of an unthinkably enormous tower that there was a hoaring vline on the horizon extending antically into the sun? Wouldn’t it be better to describe one of his monsters from beyond time as globrean, covered with tubulent, undulous morms?

Well, maybe not. But maybe that’s just because I’m not a true poet of coinage; surely someone is. I want to believe that some words can simply be that good, even on first hearing. And while, sure, the Lovecraftian fantastic literature of the beyond is a genre where this sort of thing might well have a place (I think Dunsany engages in a little free coinage, actually, in a whimsical vein), why couldn’t it also find its way into the literature of the real? After all, my initial impulse was in response to the fact that the truest flavor of experience, like the particular murmance of that boy on the subway, is almost impossible to capture with our imperfect, circumlocutory words. Coining words means more chances to nail the damn thing on the head, or at least get closer to it. Coining words means greater linguistic sluance and a finer pinth of expression.

Ha ha. Let me just be clear that I realize this is mostly silly. Mostly. Also, I should mention that I am aware of the pseudo-spiritual version of this sort of talk that comes out of the mouth of a monomaniac in Paul Auster’s City of Glass. An old man collects junk from the street (a broken umbrella, I recall, is the example), and asks what the words are for these things, now that they are no longer properly “umbrella,” etc. Their names have been forgotten by mankind. God’s language, the language before Babel, gave the true name for everything. Now we speak a fallen, arbitrary tongue. It’s a nice little book, City of Glass.

But maybe I should be explaining why what I’m proposing is feasible, sort of, whereas that’s just raving. Because I’m not talking about coming up with words that are more right than “vast,” or “umbrella,” or whatever. I’m talking about looking at a thing like the murmance of that guy on the subway and thinking, “that’s a something, so I’m going to set up a word that points directly at that something.” The broken umbrella is extremely well-served by the term “broken umbrella.” To say that it is actually a lornick is frivolous, because in what sense is the word lornick more than just a mere substitute for “broken umbrella?” I’m talking about wordifying the unworded, not reducing complex nouns to simple ones, etc. Okay.**

Somewhere in Proust (volume III? I forget where) he says something like “experience is an extensive dark space, in which we are able to shine light on only a few scattered points. Artists are explorers of this space, and by creating a work of art that captures something about life, they shine a light onto a new point in the darkness and make it accessible to the rest of us. They give us the means of knowing that point, though living it has always been ours.” Something like that. He’s talking about music, I think. So, all I’m saying is, something similar goes for language – words give us those few points of light in the darkness of amorphous, unnamed experience. A good artist of coinage should, like a good composer, be able to create a new point in the darkness, and make “concepts” out of what were previously just undefined aspects of the sloshy sensory whole.

* There’s a very nice discussion of this phenomenon in Francis Spufford’s thoughtful and well-written but badly-titled memoir of childhood reading, The Child That Books Built.

** Yes, I can see that a real, rigorous philosophical consideration of this problem would go into deeper waters. But I can see where it would go, and I would end up arguing that there is still a distinction between lornick and gewy, albeit one of degree rather than nature. And, as with many things, that’s still good enough for me.


  1. Turns out “antically” is a real word, the adverbial form of “antic.” Obviously. I sort of suspected it would be, though Microsoft Word didn’t recognize it.

    Oddly enough, though, the dictionary definition for “antically” is “ludicrously odd; fantastic,” which is quite close to what I intended it to mean. Of course, the actual connotative meaning is very different.

    “Undulous” is also a real word, meaning exactly what it sounds like, but semi-archaic and very rarely used, compared with the equivalent (but much less creepy) “undulating.”

    Posted by broomlet on |

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