Neologophilia (or, the joy of made-up words)

26 Mar
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Barter Books

Last weekend I experienced the pure joy that is Barter Books in Alnwick. (Pronounced ANNick, apparently. Never teach your child to read using British place names.) It is an old station complete with buffet and waiting room, all converted into a massive second hand bookshop. There are open fires, toy trains, snatches of poetry stuck up in odd places. It is a wonderful place to spend a few hours. It is also a wonderful place to contemplate the lovely word “vellichor”.

Vellichor is from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and has a very specific definition, which I will give in full:

the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

It’s obviously related to petrichor, the smell the earth gives off when it rains after a dry spell. It’s not too much of a stretch to get from the smell of vellum (ok, books are made of paper these days, but you get the idea) to the feelings it conjurs up in you. (I, in fact, don’t feel melancholy in old bookshops. Vellichor to me smells like endless exciting possibilities, the widening of horizons. But that’s beside the point.)

Vellichor and petrichor are both, of course, made-up words. Petrichor was invented in the 1960s, vellichor much more recently. Calling them made-up words sounds dismissive, as if they were less than real words. In fact, of course, all words were made up to start with. Usually not from scratch – there are prefixes, suffixes and roots enough to keep us all happily neologising for decades. I made up the title of this post, then a quick web search showed me that plenty of other people had beaten me to it. (One of them said “This is a Latin word I’ve made up.” Spot the deliberate mistake, those who care about that sort of thing.)

Then there’s the verbing of nouns (whatever your view on the acceptibility of it) and the reverse and so on. There are acronyms (laser) and words made out of people’s names (lynch) and ‘borrowings’ from other languages (although we never give them back).

Then there are those who deliberately make up words for fun, rather than to express something they’re trying to say. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is one example, the Dictionary of Liff is another. It uses place names such as Corriecraving to come up with liffs – words for things that there aren’t words for yet.

When it’s done well, you can’t tell that a neologism had just been made up at all. It sounds right, it feels right, and you can see how you could use it. When it’s done badly you end up with abominations like “framily” and “guesstimate”, which add nothing of value to the language, and carry a real risk of making my toes curl so much that I’ll require foot surgery.

Shakespeare was a famous neologiser. He gave us an astonishing range, from “dwindle” to “hint” to “fancy-free”. Of course, we don’t actually know which ones he made up himself, and which he was simply the first to record. Unless you were there when a word was made up, or made it up yourself, you can’t say for sure.

I remember when I read the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, many years ago. There were so many words in it that I didn’t know, that I started reading it with a pocket dictionary beside me. The pocket dictionary couldn’t cope, so I bought a much bigger dictionary, but that didn’t contain all the words either. Did Mervin Peake make them up? Quite possibly, but as even the biggest dictionary doesn’t contain every word in the English language, I just don’t know. When I reread them someday, I’ll presumably have a smartphone at my side, and see if that gets me any further.

In the meantime, happy neologising, and if you have a couple of spare minutes, enjoy this classic from Blackadder with some very mischievous coining indeed!

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