How New Words Are Born

Stan Lerner is a rarity
Well known for his gregarity
 
When my friend Stan wrote “…I know gregarity isn’t a word, but it ought to be…” he inspired me to write the above iambic couplet.  You see, he coined the word in a post in this blog and, if it eventually makes into widespread usage, you will see it in dictionaries.  Although hardly immortal verse, my finding an application for it immediately is helping to get it into the lexicon.  Similarly, when I used and defined the word oenophiliac in an earlier post (a made up extension of oenophile for comedic purposes) I took the term for a wine lover and stretched it into the realm of hyperbole to mean, a lover of wine.  Like some wines, the humor was too dry for some tastes.  I also had to entertain that some of my friends might have thought I was serious, given the robust ebullience I exhibit when tasting fine wines.

The whole business of how words and phrases come into common usage has always fascinated me. I discovered, early on, that if an important enough writer makes up a word, it becomes a word as soon as they write it.  That is to say, their invented words are legitimate; Stan’s and mine are bastards (and without help from our readers they will become orphans as well).  Shakespeare was greatly abetted in his status as a word-and-phrase-coiner not only by his genius, but by Samuel Johnson.  Johnson wrote the first dictionary of the English language and quoted Shakespeare more than any other writer.

That readers weren’t waiting for that tidbit with bated breath, I grok that, I mean it’s a forgone conclusion. The Bard is responsible for “bated breath” and “forgone conclusion”; Robert A. Heinlein for “grok”.  Heinlein offered an extensive definition of grok in his 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land.   It was a word brought to Earthlings by the title character, who was from Mars.  It’s now been adopted – yes, I’m deliberately hammering the metaphor – as a verb defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “to understand intuitively or by empathy” in the sense that I used it.  It has further meanings as well.      

Most readers know that the scientific community has always enjoyed the privilege of legitimacy for the words and phrases that name their discoveries.  Hence various biologists have named a species of jellyfish, an entire genus of New Zealand fishes and a bacterium after the rock and roll composer, Frank Zappa. Furthermore, Zappa has had the same honor with an eponymous spider, fossils and an asteroid.  Frank Zappa is not the unsung hero of entomologists, paleontologists, astronomers and biologists.  So, if Dan Norton, a local scuba diver and underwater photographer who just returned from an 11-day trip in Micronesia, is ever due south of Australia, I won’t be surprised if he sends me some pictures of zappas.

For writers and readers who love the fields known as etymology (the study of the origins of words) and lexicography (the practice of compiling dictionaries), there is a weekly column in the Sunday publication, The New York Times Magazine.  The weekly articles are under the heading “On Language” usually written by an eminent phrase-coiner himself, William Safire.  Safire is a famous essayist, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer, presidential speechwriter and lexicographer who has a staff and the resource of correspondence with many respected academics and lexicographers.  Therefore, the articles, which chiefly concern themselves with the most current words and terms circulating in mainstream culture and politics, are top-notch.  Examples of words and terms he’s dissected and confirmed the genuine origins of are: “the Establishment”, “location, location, location”, “They never go back to Pocatello”, “straw man”, “doldrums”, “the bottom line”, “at the end of the day”, etc.  He also notes when an old term comes back into vogue, such as warrior (instead of soldier, troop, fighter, et al).  He is probably still most known for coining the phrase used famously by Spiro Agnew, the “nattering nabobs of nepotism”.  That, many think, is more of a groaner in its own way than anything Howard Cosell ever said.

Anyway, I hope to see more readers and fellow oenophiliacs at Ralphs downtown for the wine tastings on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  You’ll be certain to be met with gregarity.  Can you grok it?

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