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Weird Words Won’t Win

Weird words get no respect.

They are the class clowns. We laugh at them, we cheer them on, we enjoy the mischief they make, but we don’t let them into our word-hoard.

That’s why newly invented words rarely become part of anyone’s vocabulary. Most inventors can’t resist the temptation to make them weird. The result is, they don’t look like they belong.

A very important criterion for the success of a new word is that it shouldn’t raise eyebrows. It should be inconspicuous, unobtrusive, camouflaged as something familiar, in order to slip through the gates of our language. (That’s explained, along with four other criteria for the success of a word, in my 2002 book, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success.)

Laugh if you will. But if you want a word to succeed, rather than just to make a splash, don’t let it make me laugh.

Even the best and most prolific of word-coiners make this mistake. Here are two conspicuous examples.

A century ago, the clown prince of neologisms was Gelett Burgess. He was famous for inventing the name for the puff piece about a book, the “blurb” on the jacket. That neologism was so successful that he was emboldened to coin a whole bookful of new words, published in 1914 as Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed.

Burgess Unabridged contained “blurb” and exactly 99 others. “Blurb” has become a permanent resident in the American English vocabulary. And how many of the others? Exactly zero.

Here are a few of them:

Alibosh: a glaringly obvious falsehood or exaggeration.

Cowcat: an unimportant guest, an insignificant personality.

Edicle: one who is educated beyond his intellect, a pedant.

Huzzlecoo: an intimate talk, a confidential colloquy.

Jirriwig: a traveler who does not see the country.

 

For the 21st century, an equally renowned coiner of words, as well as predictor of future trends, is Faith Popcorn. She coined “cocooning,” the trend of “staying at home, keeping a safe place around you.” After that success, in 2001, with Adam Hanft she published Dictionary of the Future. It contains hundreds of new terms like:

Advertrapment: when the lure of something for nothing traps you into being the recipient of advertising messages.

CafeFearia: concern over food-borne illnesses that are spread through school cafeterias.

Conservakids: a generation of young people between 15 and 25 who are anxious to preserve the status quo.

Napkin: used as a verb to describe when a lower-level executive cleans up a mess made by his or her boss.

Populast: a trendy spot that maintains its ineffable chicness over time.

 

Learn from these masters, ye would-be coiners, and go for something that looks as if it has been around forever. Here’s an example: “scofflaw.” It looks like a good old Anglo-Saxon word that has been around in English for a millennium or so. In fact, it was coined in 1923, the winning entry in a contest for a word “which best expresses the idea of lawless drinker” in the early days of Prohibition.

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