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Neologisms: Part One



I had meant this week to return to the subject of Libya under Colonel Gaddafi, but haven’t got my head around that yet. So, this week and next, something completely different. A neologism is a new word or phrase that someone makes up, one that may become commonly used in everyday life but has yet to become recorded as an accepted item in mainstream language (that is, for English, entered into the OED, or Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative record of the language). When someone comes up with a neologism, we say they have “coined” a word or phrase. In a world of rapidly evolving technology, social behaviour and social / political formations, neologisms are coined with great frequency. An example dating from the last century would be “brunch”, referring to a meal taken in the late morning, when someone has skipped breakfast and is going to do without lunch (so the word combines the “br” from breakfast and the “unch” from lunch). Another, which was coined by the American short story writer O. Henry, is “banana republic”, referring to a small and precarious nation state, often a dictatorship, many of which are found in banana-producing Central and South America. (Of course Lesotho and Swaziland are kingdoms, so perhaps a new coinage is required. And bear in mind, Swaziland produces bananas). More recent ones include “dongle” (a computer device), “microwave”, and a whole number for different types of popular music, such as “rap” and “grunge.” Many neologisms are not made-up words, but existing words given a new application by process of association. So we get “house” and “garage” for types of music, and “mouse” for a computer gadget. The latter prompts a joke. A man walks into a computer shop and explains that his mouse has stopped working. The shop assistant inquires: “Have you re-filled its water bowl?” Literature is full of neologisms; think of all of those in the Harry Potter books. Over 2 000 have been identified in the works of Shakespeare, which is not surprising, given that Shakespeare’s London was a city in a time of momentous and rapid change. Shakespeare’s coinages include “madcap” and “obsequiously.” In a more recent development a type of comic poem (a favourite of mine) has been classified by a neologism and is called a “limerick.” This is a five-line poem with a specific rhythm and in which the final lines of the poem rhyme following the pattern AABBA. Many of these are obscene, but I’ll give you two that are not. There was a young lady called Bright Who travelled much faster than light She set out one day In a relative way, And returned on the previous night. Of course you have to know something about Einstein’s theory of relativity to get that one. But I trust you see what I mean about the AABBA rhyme scheme: Bright, light and night are rhyme A, and day and way are rhyme B. Here’s another; whilst most limericks are anonymous, this one was written by the great poet W.H. Auden: A young person came out of the mists Who had the most beautiful wrists. A scandal occurred, Which has since been interred, Though the rumour about it persists. More on this topic next week, folks. To be concluded Chris Dunton

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