Made-up words

*bzzt – bzzt – crackle*

We interrupt our scheduled radio silence to bring you this important broadcast –

ALL WORDS ARE MADE-UP WORDS. We did not find naturally-occurring words washed up on the beach. We did not crack open fruit and find words spelled out in glistening seeds. We did not hew words out of the living rock. Words are of human origin. WE MADE THEM UP.

Yes, some of them were made up by long slow processes of making noises at each other over thousands of years, while some were deliberately bolted together very recently out of existing words and roots and suffixes and prefixes, and others emerged from the bubbling stewpot of all the words in current usage. And yes, some words have been made up more recently than others. But if you’re discounting words like “genderqueer” and “cisgender” (and “sie/hir”, “intersectional”, “allistic”, and basically any words to come from marginalised groups), I sure hope you’re  discounting words like “smartphone” and “fracking” too.  They’re all as made up as each other. That’s what we DO – we make up new words when the words we have aren’t enough to describe the world around us, or the experiences we have. Language is constantly changing and evolving. Words reflect our reality, but they also set the terms of it. (Hey, didn’t I post an audio poem about precisely that?) Adapting language is not a trivial thing: it is powerfully legitimising. It is adding your truth to the terms which govern and delimit existence – it is expanding the category of the “real”.*

And fellow Anglophones, we really don’t have any excuse for this kind of prescriptivism – the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. the foremost authority on the English language, adds hundreds of new words (or new usages of old ones) every damn year. If English had never changed then we’d all be reading Beowulf without a translation; and yet there’s always someone who seems to think that English-as-it-is-right-now is the pure, immutable, “correct” form and everything after this arbitrary cut-off point is Wrong. All it takes to see the absurdity is to imagine people tutting over Shakespeare for all the words he “made up”. And then imagine a few generations later: These kids today, with their barefaced assassination of our mother tongue! What remorseless savagery they show in besmirching our majestic language! (Yes, those are all Shakespeare.)

(This post brought to you by a friend’s request that I actually blog the things I rant about in conversation, and this thing in particular.)

* (I have a feeling “the terms which govern existence” is a phrase I’m quoting, but – aptly? – it seems to have fallen into my own idiolect enough that I’m not sure where it came from now, and Google is just presenting me with information about governments. Thanks, Google. Thoogle.)

3 thoughts on “Made-up words

  1. Yes! What an excellent rant. I’ve said this kind of things to friends before, that language is shifting and changing all the time, that it’s silly to think there’s one specific right way to do words.

  2. First place to look for a quote? Wikiquote.

    And no, they’ve got nothing for “the terms which govern existence”.

    Meanwhile, I have little time for those who use the term ‘neologism’ with disdain.

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