Monday 1 December 2008

On Kitchen Table Lingo

A correspondent has just sent me this link to a YouTube creation:

Kitchen Table Lingo

It's a nice piece of footage to go with a new book, Kitchen Table Lingo, which has just been published to publicize the English Project - a scheme to have a permanent English language exhibition at a new centre in Winchester, which I very much hope will get off the ground in a few years. You can find more details of it, and of the project in general, at its website:

The English Project.

The book has collected a fascinating group of the private and personal word-creations that are found in every household and in every social group, but which never get into the dictionary. Nobody knows how many such words there are. Everyone has been a word-coiner at some time or other - if not around the kitchen table, then in the garden, bedroom, office, or pub. The words in this book are the tip of an unexplored linguistic iceberg.

I might as well repeat here the 'afterword' I contributed to the book, pointing out that linguists have long studied these neologisms as part of research into children's acquisition of language. Anyone with young kids knows how fascinating their playful word coinages can be. The rest of the family then pick up these cute forms, and they become part of a domestic tradition. As you'd expect, linguists have devised a technical term for these dialects of the home: they call them familects.

But it isn't just children who invent such words. As this book shows, coinages can come from anyone, of any age and background. Indeed, no species is exempt, as Tigger (of Winnie the Pooh fame) illustrates with his penchant for such blends as prezactly ('precisely + exactly'). Lewis Carroll was a great inventor of neologisms, especially in 'Jabberwocky'. It is even possible to make a showbiz living out of them, as Stanley Unwin did: remember his 'Goldiloppers and the Three Bearloders'?

Some newspapers and radio programmes have competitions for invented words. The Washington Post has a famous one, and I remember one on the Terry Wogan show years ago. When I was presenting English Now for Radio 4 in the 1980s, I held a competition in which listeners sent in their favourite examples of home-grown words. The producer and I expected the usual postbag of a couple of hundred cards. That week we got over a thousand. It confirmed my belief that everyone has a linguistic story to tell.

The words in this book may be new, but the processes of word-formation that they use are not. Forms such as bimbensioner ('a superannuated bimbo') illustrate a standard way of making new words - by blending existing words. Some (such as bimble, 'travel idly without purpose') tap into the ancient phonetic properties of the language. Most inventions will stay private, personal, and unknown. Very occasionally, one or two will prove popular and end up as a permanent addition to the language - but, of course, only if people hear about them. That could be one of the surprising consequences of reading this book.


Lee said...

I wonder if there have been any studies of coinages in SF. Do you know of any to recommend? M.T. Anderson's Feed, a YA novel once with cult but now mainstream status since his Octavian novels have won so much attention (and well-deserved prizes), is an interesting example, especially because one of its themes is the emotional and intellectual poverty consequent upon language degeneration.

DC said...

There's a chapter on SF neologisms in Judith Munat's Lexical creativity: texts and contexts (Benjamins), and I'm sure you'll find several items if you do a search for neologisms in the journal Science Fiction Studies.