April 23, 2006

New ideas and new words

We've often mentioned examples of the strange view that speakers of a language with "no word for X" are therefore unable to grasp the concept of X (see below for some examples). Perhaps the most efficient refutation of that view is the enduring popularity of word-invention contests such as Bob Levey's Neologism Competition, Barbara Wallraff's Word Fugitives, and so on.

These exercises are fun partly because wordplay is fun, but the main attraction (I think) is the conscious and public scrutiny of familiar but previously unexamined concepts. For example, Lisa Belkin's Life's Work column in the NYT jobs section for 4/23/2006, "Coming to terms with a Wired Age, Part 2", features the coinage

Cylences — The long gaps in phone conversation that occur when a person is reading e-mail or cybershopping at the same time.

Like most neologisms, this one will probably never graduate from the game into real life, although Belkin implies that it's already a feature of subculture usage. She describes the source as a list of "names for many ... new concepts" sent to her by Eve Fox:

She calls it "Blang," as in "Web language," and says it is spoken by "Web wraiths" — Tolkienesque creatures (i.e., most of us) who feel chained to their computers day and night.

I'm skeptical of this implication, since none of the examples of "Blang" that Belkin cites can be found in any quantity on the web. "Cylences", in particular, returns a Google count of zero this morning, so that any Web wraiths who use it must be operating on a spectral plane that Google doesn't index.

Another "Blang" word is schoogle, which Fox (and Belkin) want to mean "A popular pastime, consisting of Googling the names of old classmates". A Google search for {schoogle} finds 11,400 pages, which seems promising -- until we look at the examples, and find that they all seem to interpret schoogle as a reference to Google Scholar (e.g. a 2004 message from Eric Hellman on the Web4lib list with the title "Welcome to the Schoogle Era"). On the first ten pages of hits, I was unable to find any examples of the usage that Belkin cites -- again, those web wraiths are hiding out pretty effectively.

Anyhow, Fox's proposed Blangish meanings for cylences and schoogle are familiar concepts to me, and I expect to you as well, even though we had (and still have) no standard terminology for naming those concepts. This situation is normal and apparently unproblematic, as indicated by the fact that neologistic seeds so rarely sprout and prosper in the culture at large.

We're quietly proud of two neologisms associated with Language Log, {eggcorn} and {snowclone}, which seem to be making their way into general use. The development of useful terminology can be a genuine help to rational inquiry -- both as a label for discussion of examples and explanations, and as a stimulus to clarification of the associated concepts. We think that these two neologisms are succeeding because they're examples of that process. But the associated concepts were familiar to many people, at least in a rough form, before the words were invented -- that's a crucial part of why the words have spread.

Some LL "No word for X" posts:

No word for robins (11/16/2004)
Arctic folk at loss for words again (11/23/2004)
It's like a glimmer on the horizon (12/3/2004)
No word for sex (3/12/2005)
No word for "lazy hack parroting drivel"? (4/1/2005)
Crisis ≠ Danger + Opportunity (4/29/2005)
Football in Navajo, anyone? (9/23/2005)
The miserable French language and its inadequacies (9/30/2005)
Snowclone blindness (11/19/2005)
"60 Minutes" doomed to repeat itself (12/24/2005)
Ayn Rand, linguist? (3/15/2006)
Ayn Rand psychologizes a trope (3/19/2006)
Whorf in a bottle (5/5/2006)
No word for thank you (5/6/2006)
No concept of the future, no yuccas either (5/11/2006)
Does anyone have a word for this? Probably not (12/2/2006)
Solving the world's problems with linguistics (12/17/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 23, 2006 01:13 PM