Friday, 4 May 2012

Golden Quotebook: On the law of valid neologism

The only true way to travel

Throughout my considerable writing career, dear reader, I’ve often been taken to task for using creative, unconventional words. The list of my lexical critics is comically lengthy and varied. It includes such pundits as G.B. Shaw, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce’s wife, Monsieur Céline, the confessor of Don Camilo José Cela, a fellow called Jerry, a friend called Colin, and many more funny folk. For some reason, all of these, while cherishing their own so-called ‘language experiments’, or cheering all ‘ground-breaking, non-conformist, experimental’ authors as long as those authors’ sales-figures, media-exposure or prestige in the cocktail-circuit are great enough (read: ‘If the other hip people applaud, then I must not be seen to lag behind…’), invariably balked when one more modest than they, yet more courageous than many, had the audacity of using a word not found – oh dear, oh scandal, oh horror of horrors! – in the latest edition of the OED… (1)

It somehow always reminds me of that funny French General who vetoed the inclusion of the word ‘défaitisme’ in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française because this was a disposition totally alien to French soldiers…

Anyway: the latest bout of silly censure I received concerned my inclusion of the word ‘Camping’ in a recent post. How dare I use that, one of my readers challenged me in a furious comment. Did I not know that the officially permitted word for such an institution in the linguistic canon of the proud English-speaking nations is ‘Camp Ground’? Never mind that anyone who has ever travelled by other means than First Class Pullman Cars, luxury 6-door taxis and five star hotels, is aware that the word ‘Camping’ is what all Campers, Camp Ground Owners and Camping Guidebooks throughout the continent employ to indicate the sites in question, since it is shorter to write on a sign post, easier to pronounce, equally accessible to speakers of all languages and simply clear enough! No, it was WRONG, absolutely dead wrong! And it would seem that the use of this single taboo term was a deadly scriptural sin which not only disgraced but also disqualified the entire text. Needless to say: no breath was wasted by this grand inquisitor of correct spelling and orthodox vocabulary on the actual message of the post, its humour or its significance. None of that mattered. Linguistic purity is what makes the world go round! One wonders what would happen if Shakespeare or Gibbon were to rise from the dead with a new masterpiece under his  elbow… After all: both were lousy spellers and shockingly creative wordmongers…

What shall I say in answer to such silly allegations, dear readers? With what kind of precious stone must you retaliate when you get pelted with mud? Must I babble about language being a living organism, which constantly renews itself, no matter what the purists of the dictionary think or say? About the right of every native speaker to improve and refine that living language? About nobody having the right to tell me what to do, least of all the dry-brained pale-faced guardians of petrified linguistics who - burrowed snugly in their overheated Oxbridge studies and wallowing in their own mediocrity - bother the world with needless opinions nobody asked for? (2)

Naaah – forget about it! I will merely quote here the refreshing views of two wise men, who knew what they were talking about and had no fear of speaking out. The first of these is Charles Baudelaire, who on the subject of neologisms and lexical renewal famously said:

            If the word doesn't exist, invent it; but first be sure it doesn't exist.

To which we may add:

If a newly coined term is good and useful, it should be a word. If it should be a word, we ought to use it. If we use it, it will become a word. (3)

No more needs to be said on that subject!

(1) Incidentally, I have also occasionally been taken to task because my sentences supposedly were too long. Can’t imagine why anyone would ever think so. But that’s another story, of which I will treat another time…

(2) Oh dear, no! Naturally I meant to write: ‘needless opinions for which nobody asked…’ Because, as everyone knows: this is nonsense up with which we all must put!

(3) From: ‘On the Death of the Dodo and the Bird of Nations’, in: The Collected Works of Alfred B. Mittington, volume xvii, p. 891.


  1. Right on, Alfington!

    'Camping', of course (like 'parking' and 'spinning') already exists as a gerund. But I'd bet my life on none of them replacing 'campsite', 'carpark' and whatever is English for 'un spinning'. Even with your weighty endorsement. Which may or may not be a shame.

  2. Well, let us agree to disagree, my dear Purist Colin! Your additional example makes another nice case for my theory. On the continent - which often deals with the English language in a much healthier and more logical way - there is clearly the tendency to use 'Parking' as a short equivalent for Parking Lot or Parking Garage or Parking Facility or Parking Palace, and what not... Of course, the term has then mutated to a Lend Word in the various receiving languages and should not, I guess, be considered English. Yet all languages gravitate ultimately towards ease, and so, in a 100 years time, if there are still cars that need parking, I bet you ever the King will ask where the Parking is!

  3. Euphony is everything- 'A camping' jars to anglo ears, however useful it is to ignorant and funny-sounding Continentals. I wonder if you can cite one example of it being used to mean a campsite or caravan park in either the UK or the USA., which are the words really used in the UK. Not 'camp ground'. I believe,

    And it's not a question of grammar or punctuation (liberal or otherwise), of course. But you will resort to any pathetic grist for your ancient, creaking, pedantic mill.

  4. "I bet you ever the King . . " Is this another example of your meaningless inventions? This time in the field of punctuation.

    Only if the Americans have adopted it first.

    1. 'Even' my boy. 'Even'. Not an invention and not punctuation. A simple typo. Which never ever ever occurs in any text of yours of course, oh immaculately faultless one!


  5. Un parking is a one word subsitution for carpark. And the advantage is . . . ?

  6. You're right, of course, I do make typos. And guess who is fond of pointing them out.