The Funny Thing About Words

Alice quote

Lewis Carroll’s topsy–turvy chatter can tie us all up in knots with his twisted reality but it does demonstrate that words are not our reality, they are merely a tool for labelling what we experience and feel is our reality.

There are no words in this world which have meaning until we give them meaning. Have you ever tried to listen to a foreign language being spoken on a train for instance? At first it merely sounds like incomprehensible gobbledegook, comprising one never-ending word! Yet the more intently we listen, the more snippets of meaning start to emerge as our brains desperately try to make sense of it all. We start to hear pauses and breaks in the delivery which make it sound more manageable and we hear intonation which gives it expression. It is not until we are sat down and taught to associate its words with our surroundings that we give the words meaning and the nonsense fades away.

When I’m creating stories for picture books, one of my aims is to inject humour into them. It is important to me to deliver each story in a comical way so even if there is an underlying serious message it doesn’t become staid or laborious but remains enjoyable to read. A popular way to get a giggle is neologism – the invention of new words. It might be considered slightly weird and pretentious if we started using a string of made up words in conversation and we’d probably receive a few looks like the one from this guy! Puzzled GuyChildren on the other hand can naturally get away with using their own words and it is an important part of their fantasy play. This may explain why children’s fiction is one of the world’s greatest playgrounds for defying the dictionary rules and a place where it is totally acceptable and at times quite unexpectedly many of these nonsense words turn out to make complete sense and end up landing straight inside our Oxford English dictionary of supposed sensible words!

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The Oxford English dictionary is used as a benchmark for words deemed “acceptable” for official use in the English language. Any word which has not been entered could therefore be considered a made up word until such time it is permitted entry. Famous authors have been using made up words for decades, many of which have since become part of the official Oxford English vocabulary. In fact some words are so familiar it seems hard to envisage a time when they never existed!  Using someone like a “doormat” was a phrase coined by Charles Dickens for example in Great Expectations or “butter fingers” from The Pickwick Papers. Shakespeare thrived on creating words such as “laughable” in the Merchant of Venice, “gossip” in The Comedy of Errors and “scuffle” in Antony and Cleopatra. Milton penned “terrific,” “dismissive” and “complacency” in Paradise Lost (although not all within the same sentence!).

However, there is an art to word creation and simply jumbling random letters together is not going to work even if it does appear to be pronounceable. The general rule is to play around with conventional grammar and pronunciation in an unconventional way. This may involve hyphenating two words we wouldn’t normally see together or combining the meaning of two words to make one word as did Lewis Carroll when he fused chuckle and snort to devise chortle for his Jabberwocky poem; changing nouns into verbs or verbs into adjectives, merging familiar foreign words with English words, giving a new meaning to an existing word, adding prefixes or suffixes or devising original words from scratch. On top of this the word must also be able to adopt its own meaning if it is to become believable and to do this it must evoke feeling, have purpose or fulfil a need.

A purpose might be to get the reader laughing or to devise a new character such as Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo, A.A. Milne’s Heffalump and even JM Barrie’s character Wendy in Peter Pan is a name that never existed until it was created for the book. It could be to incorporate a taboo subject without causing offense such as making up a fictitious swear word which makes the point but is actually harmless or like Roald Dahl’s whizzpopping, his way of referring to bodily functions amid a sensitive audience.

To fulfil a need might entail characters needing to be able communicate? Elvish in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Roald Dahl’s BFG’s Gobblefunk are perfect examples of this. Or to create a believable world around a character, such as casting spells like Alohomora (to open or unlock doors) or naming a game for young wizards Quidditch in Harry Potter (JK Rowling). Roald Dahl used his own words such as muggled for confused and whoopsy-splunkers for fantastic to express his characters feelings in original ways.

Made up words are not limited to writers. Words such as “bitmap” and “selfie” are springing up in everyday language as we adapt to new technological inventions and the words “blog” and “to text” have already been officially assigned to the dictionary. So just for fun I’ve made up a couple of my own words which I hope may resonate with some of my readers.

The first one describes how I feel on the days writing comes easily to me. I get a rush of ideas, it flows freely, feels lightweight, exciting and “flightatious.”

The second word “frotated” describes how I feel on the days writing is hard work and I find myself continuously disappointed and having to start over again and again, leaving a trail of screwed up pieces of paper in the bin (yes I do sometimes resort to the old fashioned pen and paper!).

Have a go, it’s fun! What are your words?