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Neologisms: Part Two



I’ll kick off this week with another limerick: An old gourmet dining at Crewe cried out “there’s a fly in my stew!” Said the waiter “don’t shout and wave it about, or the others will all want one too.” For serious purposes of academic work, one of the most useful neologisms of recent times was coined in the 1960s by the Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu. Previously, African poems and tales that were composed and recited rather than being written down – in Lesotho, poems such as the lithoko and lifela – were classified as “oral literature.” Zirimu pointed out that this phrase was ridiculous, indeed a contradiction in terms, as “literature” refers specifically to written works (indeed originally it referred to any kind of writing, not just creative work). So, he coined the term “orature.” Now to lighten up again. A popular form of verbal game that has developed recently involves getting players to produce neologisms that have a comic impact. Often these will be existing words given a new application: as in last week’s “mouse”, which referred originally to a small rodent, but which now also refers to a small device used to control the cursor on a computer. Every year The Washington Post runs a neologism competition in which readers are invited to apply alternative meanings for existing words, along the lines of “mouse.” Here are some of last year’s winners (one of them, I’m afraid, is a little rude). coffee (noun): a person upon whom one coughs. abdicate (verb): to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach. willy-nilly (adjective): impotent. balderdash (noun): a rapidly receding hairline. And here’s one that is a made-up word, combining an existing word, “frisbee” and a common suffix: frisbeeterianism (noun): the belief that when one dies, one’s soul flies up on to the roof and gets stuck there. And while we’re on the subject of competitions, let’s get back to puns (a favourite subject of this column in recent months), with some entries from a New York Times competition: you can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish. a girl said today that she recognised me from the Vegetarians’ Club, but I swear I’ve never met herbivore. I know a guy who’s addicted to drinking brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time. a thief who stole a calendar got twelve months. a will is a dead give-away. Chris Dunton

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