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Words, Words, (new) Words

Friday, June 4, 2010 Leave a Comment

In my college, most acting students participated in a Shakespeare Tour, and on this tour, our professor would warm up our high school audiences with a brief shout out to the Elizabethan era. "New words were invented every day!", he'd proclaim, which would lead his sarcasm-stained students in the wings to invent a ridiculous new word, then throw our hands up, shout "New word!", and dancing zorbicly* about.

But, he seems to have been right: the Elizabethans seem primed for the invention of new words, and Shakespeare is often credited with coining thousands (most importantly, puke).

I think we are undergoing a similar expansion of the language, driven in part by new technologies that need new names (hello, blog), but also by the way those technologies allow us to communicate. A few examples:

  • The Boston Globe looks at how the word malamanteau moved from online coining on May 12th to its own wikipedia page to entry in Wordnik to entry in the Urban Dictionary in less than half a day. (What does it actually mean? "A neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism, ex: misunderestimated").
  • The crowdsourced experiments of allsorts, where Twitter users propose new name sets (i.e., "a murder of crows") for things (recent examples: "a ted of bears", "a grind of baristas", "a gloat of ipads"). Users vote on their collective nouns from competing attempts.
The first example shows the speed and reach of coining; the second, how many brains can now collaborate on creating change in the language.

And whether or not the changes above leave lasting marks on the language, I believe we're having an Elizabethan moment, where the possibilities of what our words can do is expanding rapidly.

The questions is then what theatre is going to do about it. The Elizabethan era may have been the perfect time for a linguistic explosion, but it was Shakespeare's artistry that made that widened circle of expression the vital center of our language. Right now, it feels like hip hop artists are driving linguistic invention far more than theatre artists, possibly because of the demographics of our audiences and where they're willing to go; or possibly because our jank imaginations have lost interest in this kind of creative expansion.

So, readers, I offer this comments section to you, and whatever new words you want to coin. Who knows? Maybe they'll even make the Urban Dictionary, and last as long as a Football Minute.

*"New word!"


  • Matt A said:  

    I think this all comes down to intellectual confidence (a matter I discussed over lunch with a Fluxer).

    Elizabethans were schooled in grammar, poetry, and rhetoric. The average person was safe to take language to a new place, relying on their own ability to effectively communicate a new idea with a new sound.

    And modern hip-hop...is there anything quite so confident these days (if not often with a degree of foolishness)?

    Where does theatre come in? Bringing it back would be fun, I think. Use some esoteric words, and make up some new ones...as long as they have a sensical meaning phonetically.

    And seriously, there should be open-forum events for inventors of collective nouns. I recently learned of a 'kindle' of kittens.

    Here's some new ones:

    a 'nerd' of collective nouns
    a 'gig' of computers
    a 'snoot' of actors
    a 'pander' of politicians
    a 'nomad' of New Yorkers


    What else?

    Someone come up with collective nouns for otters, apartments, crayons, silk, batteries, trains, dinosaurs, turtles, sheaths, diaphragms, padlocks, and forceps.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    I love:

    a 'snoot' of actors
    a 'pander' of politicians

    I offer:

    an undulate of otters