Monday, August 27, 2012

Word Twitterpation

“That’s not a word.”

You can almost hear the know-it-all fifth grader saying it, hand on jutted hip, eye roll and all.

You also might hear this from your editor. If her comment pointed to an out-and-out error, fix it forthwith, and be glad of the public embarrassment she saved you.

If on the other hand you used the word purposefully and creatively, and because no other English word delivers the right shade of meaning, your editor might be holding you back in the venerable art of word invention.

Children’s literature is full of made-up words, because children reach beyond their vocabularies all the time to amusing—and often revealing—effect. A page torn from the linguistic annals of my grandchildren: commenting on his older brother Liam’s behavior, three-year-old Levi borrowed from his mother’s sense of right and wrong when he said, "That’s not a-poopie-ate, right mommy?" I say we wordsmiths can learn from their fearlessness.

The world of language would be less fanciful indeed without one of my faves, “twitterpated,” coined in the 1942 Disney film Bambi when Wise Owl says, “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime.” Its consonants arrive in such quick succession that it perfectly evokes that acceleration of heartbeat, that flighty, excited feeling you get when you think about your newly beloved. Much more so than “head over heels,” which has such an air of orthopedic mishap about it.

Some neologisms are one-offs; others are eventually memorialized in Merriam-Webster’s. "Twitterpated" disembarked in the Great In-Between known as the Urban Dictionary, although may gain renewed life as the title of a new romance by Melanie Jacobson.

I made up “philosobabble” for my creative writing, for example. I obviously based it on “psychobabble,” which earned its way into Merriam-Webster’s in 1975, yet I liked the way it more accurately evokes the speech of someone who is constantly spouting off their theories of the meaning of life. I guess this would be an unofficial “second definition,” however, since the Urban Dictionary already defines philosobabble as “conversation among two or more people (usually college undergraduates) that makes absolutely no sense, belying a severe lack of knowledge on the part of one or more participants.” A fun definition, although not the intent of my usage, whose meaning can be discerned through context. When making up words you have to think about one-upmanship.

It’s fun to peruse the Urban Dictionary word list for unusual candidates, though. A few doors down from “philosobabble” was “philosophagus,” defined as “someone who is philosophical ad nauseam.”

Language is always undergoing reinvention. No truer ode to the process can be found than Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” from his 1871 novel Through the Looking Glass, which begins:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe. 
Through the years many have believed that ambiguity was Lewis’s point, and that Alice’s reading of the poem illustrates the way we reach for meaning. After struggling through its words, she says,
"It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate."
Was it nonsense? The poem offered up two invented words snatched up by Webster the very next year (1872)—words you may have used: “galumphing” (to move with a clumsy, heavy tread) and “chortle” (a hybrid chuckle and snort).

While still relegated to Urban Dictionary status, I’m pulling for J.K. Rowling’s “apparate,” which has found its way into my own personal lexicon. I love the idea that something could simply appear after teleporting from elsewhere (“teleportation,” by the way, was introduced in 1932 by writer Charles Fort to describe strange appearances and disappearances).

Writers are so often caught up in finding just the right word. What if it doesn’t exist—should that stop us from reaching for it? And what if inexactitude is just the right effect you hope to conjure in your reader—could a character leave behind a note referencing a mysterious “borogove”? If your writing ever requires a word the English language cannot provide, why not turn to that boundless, pattern-making, meaning generator you carry with you everywhere you go: your imagination.

What are some of your favorite made-up words? Have you ever published fiction with words fabricated to achieve a certain effect?

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. What a cool post, Kathryn! As a fellow lover of words, I applaud your imaginative look at our sometimes mundane and inadequate language. My favorite has long been the one you noted from Bambi — twitterpated. This great word has yet to be equaled by one more descriptive, and so stands alone as an inspiration that dares us to think outside that clich├ęd box.

  2. Twitterpated is great, but it most certainly would have a different meaning today. At least for those who are active on Twitter. Hahaha. Ladies, you, too, could be modernly twitterpated in the social media realms.

  3. That is so true, Dani. I thought of Twitter first when I came to the word in today's post. I do think we can get twitterpated sometimes. LOL

    Wonderful post, Kathryn. I really appreciate all the research you put into a post. I'd forgotten about Jabberwocky, and truly love your "philosobabble."

  4. Thanks, ladies. And Dani: "twitterpated" does have an alternate, derogatory meaning in the Urban Dicitonary as one who is a little too full of Twitter madness, but in a short post I just couldn't bring myself to sully the word!

  5. is SO hopelessly jaded sometimes! Vile even. Let's not go there too often. ;)

  6. FYI: not trying to make up a new word with "Dicitonary," although it has a cool sound to it. I do sometimes sit in my office and just laugh at the funny words I create through typos. ;)

  7. I'm looking for an excuse to use the word mimsy.

  8. Guess I'm older than everybody else, or I'm living in the past. I only thought of Bambi. :-)

  9. I LOVE "philosobabble"! I've always liked "twitterpated" too.

    Chi--what does "mimsy" mean? It has a good sound to it.

  10. It's fun to make up a word every once in a while and stick it in a book. I don't recommend going overboard because that can slow the pace down.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. Chihuahua: How mimsical of you!

    Heidi: "Mimsy" is one of the nonsense words from Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.

    Linda: The modern "twitter" association drains the charm from the word. Glad you weren't burdened by that!

  12. Morgan: I agree. One made-up word is fun and memorable; many are a definite drag. Unless, like Carroll, the whole point is nonsense.

    FYI: Douglas Adams, in his 1979 novel Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—just this month named #12 in an NPR poll of the 100 Best Teen Novels—used the Jabberwocky form to build his included poem, "Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly."

    For the poll results:

  13. Jabberwocky led to the most bizarre phone call I've ever received. After pitifully few hours of sleep (yay, night job), the phone rang. My dad was calling. The entire conversation lasted lasted less than thirty seconds.

    "Hey, in Jabberwocky, what are the badgers?"

    "Urrgh, huh? Those would be toves."

    "Really? Toves? Thanks!" *click*

    This was followed by a spate of my own invented words.


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