Saturday, June 23, 2012

Coining? Not exactly

This week's World Wide Words newsletter has this item:
Philip Arnold e-mailed, “I am wondering if we may credit you with coining a new word. In the snippet on Great Wen you use eruditism. I could not locate it in any online dictionary, finding only erudite. Congratulations.” It’s very kind of him, but I can’t take any credit. Though it’s not in any dictionary that I’ve consulted, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, a search found a number of examples — one from the nineteenth century — which use it in the same sense as I did, for an erudite word. It wasn’t an error for erudition.
I don't quite get this - which I run across all the time, by the way. How is it "coining a new word" (in the positive sense) or "that's not a real word!" (in the negative) when you take a perfectly standard bit of English derivational morphology, -ism in this case (in the meaning "feature or trait", and add it to an English stem?

Lots of words "aren't in the dictionary" because the dictionary compilers made a conscious decision not to include derivations that were transparent, or to put it a bit more technically: Such resources often do not include words that are morphologically derived from base forms on the assumption that morphology is regular and that affixes carry unambiguous information both about the part of speech and the meaning of the derived word. (Putting Semantics into WordNet's "Morphosemantic" by Christiane Fellbaum, Anne Osherson, Peter E. Clark).

In other words, if you put "un" onto a word, are you really "coining a word"? Just because "unwhite" isn't in the dictionary, did I just make it up? If you ran across it in a sentence (the dog's teeth weren't yellow but they were unwhite , say, or he didn't really blacken names, but he took pride in how quickly he could unwhiten a reputation) wouldn't you understand it? How about an evaluation which said "Susie could stand to develope some indistractableness" - clear what it means, no?

In plenty of other languages such use of derivational morphology is unremarkable. How did we get so enslaved by our dictionaries that "that's not even a word!" gets attached to transparently meaningful things such as "unwhite" or "eruditism" as much as to things like "shiltzenry" or "wug"?

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5 Comments:

At 12:11 PM, June 23, 2012 Blogger Barry Leiba had this to say...

Yeh... I remember using "unfuck" in the early 1970s. I made it up (which is to say that I hadn't heard it before), but I didn't think I really had anything novel there.

At least they used "coining" correctly there. What bothers me more is when people use "coin a [word | phrase]" to refer to quoting something that's been said before.

I think it comes from misunderstanding ironic usage, and taking that as the true meaning. And who thinks about the actual process of producing a coin, hm?

 
At 4:10 PM, June 23, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

"To coin a phrase." Yep, you're right, Barry.

Also, "Pardon my French" (for cuss words in English).

 
At 7:21 PM, June 23, 2012 Blogger Brigid Daull Brockway had this to say...

I rather frequently have people point out the irony of my being a writer with an English degree who uses the word y'all. I think it's a game of "I'm going to out-English the English major," which is in itself ironic because there's nothing incorrect about the word y'all.

 
At 1:44 PM, June 24, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Brigid, in the greater Pittsburgh, PA., area, the 2nd-person plural pronoun -- pretty much limited to less-educated whites -- is "yinz" (contracted pronunciation of "you 'uns," which in turn is a corruption of "you ones"). Indeed, someone who speaks Pittsburghese is often called a "Yinzer."

A few other examples include "needs fixed" (there's an old joke around here that Hamlet's soliloquy in Pittsburghese is simply "Or not"!; to "redd up" (to clean up or neaten, e.g., a home); Dahntahn (pronunciation of Downtown); jaggers (thorns on roses or berry plants); and "gumband" (= rubber band.

 
At 3:55 PM, July 25, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Barry, I recently used your U-word in a sentence describing the one thing that NCAA sanctions against Penn State cannot do for the young rape victims.

 

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