Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Neologisms in America (Stray Notes)

John Ashbery, c. 2010
(Photograph by David Shankbone)

All my thinking about neologisms seems invariably to return to John Ashbery matter-of-factly reporting (in a poem titled “Qualm”) that “Warren G. Harding invented the word ‘normalcy,’ / And the lesser known ‘bloviate,’ meaning, one imagines, / To spout, to spew aimless verbiage.” Claims devilishly (humorously) inflated into likelihood, but apparently untrue. According to the OED, citing a Norwalk, Ohio newspaper, one Peter P. Low, Esq., planned to bloviate “with open throat” regarding farm taxes, that in 1845, roughly twenty years prior to poor Warren’s earthly arrival. (Though Harding did, in 1920, pluck the term “normalcy” out of mathematics—or, more likely, butcher the customary mot “normality” in announcing America’s “present need”: “not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.” Spewing, that is, “aimless verbiage” like any politico.)

I suspect that such baldly self-assured “spewing” is likely how any number of new words arrive, honking forth unanticipated, up out of the edges of sense, or of use. (When Thomas Pynchon in Against the Day makes one of the Chums of Chance say: “Think, bloviators, think!”—I like to think he’s not only regaling the lavish miasma of the American lingo in all its sempiternal “chaunge and mutabilitye,” but that he’s nodding, too, in Ashbery’s direction, if not Harding’s.)

Ashbery, with a particular ear for slang, demotic root of the new, says, too, of Harding: “He wasn’t a bad egg.” Ashbery’s 1975 poem “Mixed Feelings” is listed in the OED as a source for the lovely resurrected ’thirties slang word “nerts”: “Aw nerts, / One of them might say, this guy’s too much for me.” And sure enough, in a wholly annoyed 1935 letter to Ezra Pound—who’s beginning to spout the insupportable verbiage that’ll put him in detention in St. Elizabeths—William Carlos Williams writes: “Nerts to you.”

Is it Benjamin Franklin who offers a model for American writers regarding neologisms? In a letter to David Hume (dated 27 September 1760), he seems to vacillate between nodding agreeably to some dubious Old World standard of clarity (and class) and defending a feisty New World demand for new forms:
I thank you for your friendly Admonition relating to some unusual Words in the Pamphlet. It will be of Service to me. The perjorate, and the colonize, since they are not in common use here, I give up as bad; for certainly in Writings intended for Persuasion and for general Information, one cannot be too clear, and every Expression in the least obscure is a Fault. The unshakeable too, tho’ clear, I give up as rather low. The introducing new Words where we are already possss’d of old ones sufficiently expressive, I confess must be generally wrong, as it tends to change the Language; yet at the same time I cannot but wish the Usage of our Tongue permitted making new Words when we want them, by Composition of old ones whose Meanings are already well understood.
Franklin points to German and Latin precedents for compounding, and offers a terrific example: “For instance, the word inaccessible, tho’ long in use among us, is not yet, I dare say, so universally understood by our People as the Word uncomeatable would immediately be, which we are not allow’d to write.” Sign of the slipperiness of the emergent neologism: Franklin’s uncomeatable (out of William Congreve’s 1694 comedy The Double-Dealer: “My Honour is infallible and uncomatible.”) is unlisted in both Dr. Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary and the considerably revised 1773 edition, though somewhere Johnson opines that it is “a low, corrupt word.” One begins to think new words, like new styles of dress, begin with the lowly, the homely, the disjecta, and ascend. (I was once instructed to observe the odd dress and accessory quirks of the commoner prostitutes along the rue St. Denis in Paris if I deigned predict what the haute couture houses would offer the next season . . .)

Henry David Thoreau, inventor of the sound-mimicking honk (an amateur ornithologist, he added to the written record, too, the bird names veery—“A North American thrush . . . also called tawny and Wilson’s thrush” reads the OED, though every Peterson’s field guide uses Thoreau’s term—and flicker—a species of North American woodpecker)—Thoreau, too, insists on the homely origin of words in a Journal entry dated 16 October 1859. Beginning with the claim “the roots of letters are things” (predicting Williams’s later formula of “No ideas but in things”) Thoreau writes:
Natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings, and yet American scholars, having little or no root in the soil, commonly strive with all their might to confine themselves to the imported symbols alone. All the true growth and experience, the living speech, they would fain reject as “Americanisms.” It is the old error, which the church, the state, the school ever commit, choosing darkness rather than light, holding fast to the old and to tradition. A more intimate knowledge, a deeper experience, will surely originate a word. When I really know that our river pursues a serpentine course to the Merrimack, shall I continue to describe it by referring to some other river no older than itself which is like it, and call it a meander? It is no more meandering than the Meander is musketaquidding. As well sing of the nightingale here as the Meander. What if there were a tariff on words, on language, for the encouragement of home manufacturers? Have we not the genius to coin our own?
Thoreau’s tongue is only half in cheek. The Musketaquid being the indigenous name of the Concord, the “grass-grown” river, whence Thoreau descended toward the Merrimack and heard—and named, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)—the bloviate-loud flicker: “The wildest scenes have an air of domesticity and homeliness even to the citizen, and when the flicker’s cackle is heard in the clearing, he is reminded that civilization has wrought little change here.”

How timid Thoreau’s call for “home manufacturers” seems, put next to William Carlos Williams’s later (1936) brash sense of America’s unstoppable lingual destiny. Reviewing a late edition of Mencken’s The American Language, he notes “the unrelenting warfare between England and the United States over a language which had burst the bounds of a narrow world and was spreading helter-skelter over a vast new continent.”