The Non-word of the Day

Over the summer I began thinking “What could I possibly tweet that would be interesting?” Here’s the plan. Beginning in January, Literary Ashland will tweet a non-word of the day. We’ll make up a word, and post its definition in 140 characters or less. And for you non-tweeters, at the end of each month we’ll do a round up of that month’s non-words and maybe even a vote for the non-word of the month.

So what’s a non-word? It’s got to be a new word (ideally), along with a meaning, in 140 characters of less. It’s not just words that aren’t in the standard dictionary. Ambiguate, from disambiguate, is not in Merriam-Webster’s but it’s a common backformation easily found in Wiktionary or Wordnik. So is underslept, the antonym of overslept. Even the wonderfully evocative bananus (the little brown part at the bottom of a banana that no one eats) shows up in the Urban Dictionary.

So the goal is to come up with things like chopportunity, meaning a challenge which is also an opportunity.

The new words will come in different linguistic categories naturally. A lot will be blends, in the tradition of Lewis Carroll’s chortle: chopportunity, bananus, etc. Some will be clippings, like rents from parents or nyms, from antonyms, homonyms, etc. Some will be neoclassicisms, like ergonaut or digerati. There will be backformations, like descript from nondescript and ambiguate from disambiguate and affixations—the addition of a pre-, suf- and even in- fix to create new words. We’ll propose some folk etymologies, eggcorns, and mondregreens, based on faux etymologies and mishearings. We’ll even try invent a new word type or two as we go.

Wordinistas, by the way, treat compounds and even phrases with idiomatic meanings, as words, loosely speaking. So from time to time, I’ll add a compound or hyphenated word. And occasionally you’ll see an acronym or initialism. I’ll try not to fudge too much. And I’ll resist the temptation to refurbish archaisms like bedoozle, as much as I like the word.

You can help by using (even abusing) the new non-words in your own speech and writing. And you can play along by sending suggestions for new words. There may even be prizes if your word is selected.

The idea is to have some wordfun. Publisher Bennett Cerf once described Groucho Marx as someone who … “doesn’t look at words the way the rest of us do. He looks at them upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more. Groucho doesn’t look for double meanings. He looks for quadruple meanings.”

Free your inner Groucho with the non-word of the day in 2012. Coming soon at #LiteraryAshland.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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