Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Neologism (and a half), After Much Rambling Buildup

Surely there are people who spend their time trying to devise neologisms (new words or expressions). I suspect that there is a whole subculture of these linguistic hobbyists. I think it's fair to say that the most blatant (and for a time, the most famous (and possibly the most prolific)) of these neologists in recent memory was Rich Hall. His "sniglets" (words that don't appear in the dictionary but should) were featured for a time on Saturday Night Live and he published a few volumes of them, which I believe were bestsellers.

[Note: Hall was a cast member of Saturday Night Live during at least one of what I think of as "The Forgotten Years". In recent years, when I have sporadically caught reruns of SNL on E!, I don't believe I have ever seen one of the episodes from this era rerun. These were actually my favorite SNL years (probably more than for any other reason because they're the years when I started watching, and they therefore have a real nostalgic value for me). Besides Rich Hall, the cast of this era included Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall, Eddie Murphy (although I don't think Hall and Murphy actually shared a season), Tim Kazurinsky, Gary Kroeger, Mary Gross, Martin Short, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Billy Crystal. Some of these people went on to stellar careers, some faded from the public eye. All were great in their own way, and it's a shame that those SNL episodes don't seem to be in syndication.]

Anyway, as I've mentioned before, I've been trying to think on a 10,000 year scale instead of thinking in terms of decades or centuries. This is daunting. Especially if you also think in terms of trying to leave some sort of literary legacy. Which I do. ("Odd," you might say, given that I have never published a novel nor is there any real reason to believe that I will ever manage to do so. I won't dispute that it's odd. I also will freely admit that I have no such grandiose aspirations for what I post on my blog. It's easy to spew out lots of words if you are not trying to write for the ages.)

When I took my first real stab at writing a novel, I was not seriously thinking in 10,000 year terms. But I was thinking much more vaguely in terms of literary "immortality". And to some degree, this really acted as a hindrance to me, though perhaps not in the sense that you would expect. I wasn't frozen with fear at the prospect of trying to write something great. Instead, I was stymied by the certainty (certainty!) that much of what we deal with in our daily lives is (in the longish term) mere ephemera.

What will last?

"Telephone" will be an obsolete term soon. "Internet" will probably be obsolete even sooner. Already there's a generation of people for whom "Walkman" is meaningless, I'm sure. It's been superseded by "iPod" or "MP3 player", both of which will be virtually forgotten within 50 years. I'm pretty confident in saying that. Heck, even "computer" may fairly quickly become an archaic term, as what we think of as a computer becomes obsolete, replaced by some sort of I-don't-know-what. When faced with this knowledge, and motivated by the desire to write something timeless, what's an author to do?

In my case, the answer is challenging, and limiting: try your best to avoid including references to those things that you're sure will soon be memories, soon thereafter be quaint curiosities, and soon thereafter be lost to the realm of human experience. Limiting, indeed! If the phone is off limits, surely e-mail is too. IM and text messaging -- meaningless and (to me in my novelistic aspirational mindset) useless! What's an LP? What's an album? What in the world does vinyl have to do with music?

Anyway, the more I try to think on a 10,000 year scale, the more convinced I become that the idea of literary immortality is an unattainable goal. Here's what else I've concluded about the exercise: 1) Your best shot at literary longevity is inextricably linked with accepting anonymity. 2) The shorter your contribution (assuming it's really good), the longer it is likely to last.

So, if you want to leave a lasting literary legacy, your best bet is to accept that it will not be associated with your name for very long, and to make it as snappy as possible. Aphorisms, proverbs, and neologisms are really the way to go, if "immortality" is your goal.

Neologisms are actually probably the worst of these three forms, for the simple reason that the others can be translated to other languages with ease and (assuming they're really effective) they won't lose any value in the translation.

So, after there's no longer any such thing as a "penny" and after Ben Franklin is completely forgotten, "a penny saved is a penny earned" can still have meaning to any culture (and in any language) that has grasped the concept and adapted the saying to its particular vernacular. "Penny" is just a variable, easily replaced by "dollar" "yen", "peso", or "yumyum". "Save" and "earn" are simple concepts, easily translatable into almost any language. Assuming it still has cultural value, "a penny saved is a penny earned" can easily be imagined as having the potential to outlast the English language.

Neologisms are a trickier business. A neologism is only a neologism for a short time. If it catches on (a big if, always), it soon ceases to be a neologism and instead simply becomes a word. Words are really tied to the language in which they originate, with rare exceptions. ("OK" has somehow become fairly universal.) Generally speaking, if the language dies, so does the word. This doesn't even take into account the natural evolution of language that dictates the constant, gradual alteration in meaning that occurs to many (if not most or all) words. If you originate a new word with a particular meaning today and in 50 years the word is still used, but with a somewhat different connotation (or worse, a somewhat different denotation), can you still take credit for it? How about in 300 years, when your original definition is so far removed from the current one that there isn't even any readily obvious connection between what it was and what it has become?

I mentioned Rich Hall earlier. Turns out he was apparently Matt Groening's inspiration for the character of Moe Szyslak. Mentioning Matt Groening is a handy tool for tying neologisms to literary legacies. (I am, of course, using a very broad definition of "literary", here.) If we were placing bets, my money would be on "d'oh" as Groening's lasting literary legacy. I'm guessing that people will widely respect and appreciate (perhaps revere) The Simpsons (and, I hope, Futurama) for a few decades to come. I suspect that in 100 years, those shows will be as well known and loved as are the films of Harold Lloyd today. Which is to say that there will be a small group of devotees who fight hard to keep the legacy alive, while the vast majority of the population will suddenly be overcome by a blank stare (at best) when presented with a reference to them. By contrast, I'm guessing that "d'oh" stands a very good chance of lasting and being widely used as an expression of anger or frustration or revealed stupidity for at least a couple of hundred years. If I had to put my money on how long "d'oh" will be in common parlance, I'd bet somewhere between 300 and 600 years. (That's me being extremely optimistic, which is rare.)

Assuming "d'oh" lasts that long, will Groening's name be associated with it in any way? Not a chance! But it will still be his legacy, and I'm pretty sure that if it does last that long, it'll likely be his only (directly attributable) contribution to whatever has become of society.

Which is great!

I don't think Jose Saramago or Toni Morrison or Kenzaburo Oe or V.S. Naipaul or Orhan Pamuk is likely to have inserted anything so powerful as that one word quite so far into the future. This is not a commentary on their literary genius. Merely a thought about what likely lasts and what likely doesn't through the coming centuries.

It's fair to say that I am not one of those neologism hobbyists I mentioned at the start of this entry. It's also fair to say that I do not have any expectation that my offerings in this field will catch on, let alone last. However, having stated as much, I figure I might as well throw a neologism or two out there into the internet as see if I get any traction at all.

So, without further ado, one and a half neologisms for your consideration:

intrarogative - adj. Characterized by self doubt. n. One who is characterized by self doubt.
intrarogative question - n. A question, typically rhetorical and usually pessimistic, about one's own place in the universe.

I am an intrarogative (I think), always questioning my own choices in life, rarely certain that I have acted as wisely as I should have done.

"Why me?" is the mother of all intrarogative questions. Others include: "How did I get here?", "Why did this happen to me?", and even vaguer questions like "What else can go wrong?".

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