I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
I’ve been known to coin a few words myself, for business (as a name developer) and pleasure (as a lover of playful language). So it was a delight to discover the stories behind some famous madeupical words—googol, snark, discombobulate, robotics—and some not-so-famous duds.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers for three months. Here’s an excerpt:
Committees, you will probably not be surprised to learn, are not reliable laboratories for word-invention. But even brilliant solo practitioners have struck out more than they’ve homered. John Milton, the 17th-century poet, is credited with adding more than 600 words to the English language, including advantage, damp, fragrance, jubilant, and padlock; but he also had many nonstarters, such as opiniastrous (opinionated) and intervolve (to involve with one another). Roald Dahl invented many memorable terms, including Oompa Loompa and scrumdiddlyuptious, as well as many more forgettable ones, including chiddler (child), sogmire (quagmire), and frobscottle (“a fizzy drink whose bubbles fall rather than rise”).
“As prolific word coiners … routinely discover,” Keyes writes, “deliberately creating a new term in hopes that others will adopt it is generally an unfruitful way to refresh our language.” He quotes the linguist Barbara Wallraff: “We can make words up; we can love the words we make up; we can feel, well, that really nailed it; but we can't make them enter the language.”
I’d planned to do a roundup of books with identical titles, just to show you that copyright law doesn’t protect a title. (Some titles are protected by trademark, though. Consider the For Dummies and Chicken Soup for the Soul series.) I had Word by Word by Kory Stamper (2018) and Word by Word by Anne Lamott (2004); Great Expectations (1980) by Landon Y. Jones—popularizer of “Baby Boom”—and Great Expectations by that British guy (1861). The contemporary American author Elif Batuman has built her publishing career on titles intentionally borrowed from Dostoevsky: The Idiot, The Possessed
Next on my list was Last Call, the title of a true-crime book by Elon Green, published in March 2021, about a serial killer who preyed on gay men in 1990s New York.
On March 13, 2020, Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski noticed that all of the dictionary’s lookups were pandemic related: coronavirus, quarantine, draconian, lockdown, cancel. For the somber one-year anniversary this month, WGBH looked at how the pandemic has transformed the English language, and whether its impact will endure:
Will people five years from now still say they are “zooming” when they conduct a video meeting online? Will slang terms like “doomscrolling” and “covidiot” make their way into wider use or be little-known relics from a brief moment in time? Will “COVID-19,” in all-caps, be the preferred styling? Or will it be overtaken by “Covid-19,” in lowercase, a styling many news organizations have started using?
As I’ve notedherefrequently, book and movie titles, like brand names, follow fashions and formulas. One of the longest-running contemporary trends is the “girl” title, a favorite for at least six years now. New examples (all published, or slated for publication, in 2021) include The Girls I’ve Been, Girl A, Black Girl Call Home, The Other Black Girl, Girlhood, Sunshine Girl, and The Girls with No Names.
The Declarative Sentence trend is more of a rising star, not yet overwhelming the best-seller lists but already inspiring imitations. The formula is: [Personal Name] + [Form of the Verb ‘To Be’] + [Phrase or Phrasal Verb]. The three examples that caught my attention—all novels written by women—use the present tense of to be.
2020 has been a sad year, a scary year, an angry year, a lonely year, a grieving year. Above all, though, it’s been a weird year. Very, very, very weird—from the personal (sheltering in place, in some cases for months on end) to the social (no funerals, no parties, no breaching the six-foot contact boundary) to the cultural (no movies, no theater, no concerts, no schools, no restaurants, no sports) to the political (do I need to repeat all the counterfactuals?).
Election Day, November 3: A polarizing Republican candidate who has spent much of his adult life heading a family business faces a Democrat who has spent most of his adult life as an elected official. The Republican has been branded as an extremist, a narcissist, and possibly a fascist—none of which deters his fanatical supporters. The Democrat is overshadowed by a glamorous predecessor and tarred by a specious eleventh-hour scandal. In the background—or foreground, depending on your perspective—are widespread racial and youth uprisings that some people suspect are ignited by “Communists” and “anarchists.”
2020? No, I’m describing 1964, when the November election date was the same as this year’s. It was a year of violence in Harlem and Jersey City; of the murders of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi; of heated free-speech protests in Berkeley. It was the year Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, running for his first full term less than a year after the JFK assassination, faced Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a far-right Republican who had beaten all of the Establishment contenders—Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Scranton—to win his party’s nomination.
One 1964 event stands apart for its strangeness and impact: the Johnson campaign’s rule-breaking late-campaign TV spot. It’s known today by a one-word title, “Daisy,” and it permanently changed the way political campaigns were waged.
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.
Is our modern obsession with showering just another form of hygiene theater? That’s the premise of James Hamblin’s new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, which Brooke Jarvis reviews in the August 3 & 10 issue of the New Yorker. (In May, the New Yorker published Jarvis’s wonderful piece about eels. No matter what you think you think, or don’t think, about eels, you should read that piece.)
James Hamblin stopped showering five years ago (he still washes his hands, you’ll be glad to know), and is doubtful, Jarvis writes, “about all the scrubbing and soaping—not to mention moisturizing and deodorizing and serum-and-acid application—to which we subject the rest of our body’s largest organ, and about the companies that spend a lot of money to convince us that we must do so to be clean.”
It’s those companies, and their massive marketing budgets, that interest me.