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Strictly Speaking

Instant Neologisms


The first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Sputnik initiated both the space race, accelerated the arms race, and became, overnight, a household English word that brought fear of Russian missile attack. Since this orbiting device nearly turned the Cold War hot and ended civilization, it might be the kind of trivia that we are inclined to remember. Here’s a bit of fun. If you’re between twenty and thirty years of age, place a bet with a friend before you arrive at a party. Bet him or her ten cents per minute for every minute of ersatz conversation that the word Sputnik will not be spoken. Its absence will be strange for a mere word once so frightful that it nearly destroyed everything. Read More 
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In 1960, with the blessing of Websters’ Third International Dictionary, words like copacetic, which originally meant excellent, or fine, gained full linguistic legitimacy. Prior to 1960, dictionaries prefaced the definition of copacetic by “slang” or “substandard.”

The older dictionaries were not being judgmental, as some believe. They simply understood that word usage in spoken language continues to be a socioeconomic distinction. Well spoken people who chose their words carefully, and, like Einstein, think slowly, are generally better educated, more capable and, more likely to rise in influence than those who are content to succumb to the temptations of changing usage in order to be more broadly embraced socially.

A few steps up the socioeconomic ladder would leave copacetic in the dust by deploying “superb,” which is broadly understood, whereas “ineffable,” while a perfectly good word, risks losing many listeners in the thicket of their own limitations. Read More 
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Junk Words, Part 1

Our DNA is a molecular language that allows the successful results of evolutionary selection to provide for the creation of amino acids, proteins, and then, step-by-step, the differentiation of cells into tissues, organs and a bipedal stereoscopic creature that occupies the taxonomic slot Homo sapiens.

On close examination, our DNA is not the elegant, miraculously minimalist formulation one might expect of an intelligent designer, but contains inactive records or ancient infections that our primate ancestors battled and overcame, along with unmistakable evidence for occasional, if infrequent, dalliances with our Neanderthal cousins. A surprising swath of the doubly spiraling molecule composed of just four amino acids bound at the girth by nucleotide bases is what popular science writers and geneticists have coined “junk DNA.”

Junk DNA is an inextricable part of us, but benign, unthreatening, simply ineffectual. Like sentimental objects consigned to a dusty attic, junk DNA has somehow accumulated but never expresses itself. It is not dangerous, in the sense of representing a latent threat to as few as one in twenty million people. It is simply the residue of the struggle to advance from an earlier form into a new and more challenging niche. In this respect it is dissimilar to a carcinogenic mutation, a change in an individual’s DNA that may occur more frequently in one cultural group or region of population than in the population at large.

Many mutations are known and cataloged, some as clearly as a single gene that codes for Huntington’s Disease, a chronically progressive neurologically degenerative affliction that killed folk singing legend Woody Guthrie.

By contrast, junk DNA follows us like a chain of cans tied to the back of a car that chases newly weds to their future. The difference is that it follows us from generation to generation in a process that reaches back many millions of years. It is an artifact that, molecularly, no longer communicates useful design information. Quite literally in fact, it is silent, unexpressed. We do not see it manifest anywhere in our form. It is quintessentially insignificant. In Shakespeare’s memorable and carefully chosen words, it signifies nothing.

By analogy, usage is increasingly injecting words into conversation that are so often and inappropriately repeated that they, too, are to meaningful expression what junk DNA is to the human genome. But instead of being a legacy of abandoned and resurrected junk, junk words are hollow neologisms, their contributions nullified by obligatory repetition, their occurrence attributable to a modern tribal need: to remain included, to be accepted.

A formal precedent for the concatenation of junk words masquerading as serious discussion occurs in the United States Congress. It is called a filibuster. Once given the floor by the speaker, a Congressman may speak until his (or her) voice fails him (or her), as long as he (or she) speaks words. They can be proper nouns from a phone book. In fact, this is common source of material for filibustering.

The purpose of the filibuster is to obstruct discussion or delay a vote on an issue that is unfavored by a party or individual. Filibusters have delayed, sometimes for many days, the inevitable passage of landmark legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act. The purpose of sustaining the vocalization of words is not to advance discussion, but to paralyze attention on the speaker, without a commensurate obligation to the speaker to make sense, or introduce any matter relevant to communication or understanding.

The shrinkage of core vocabulary that has paralleled the decline in verbal SAT scores for four consecutive decades flourishes in the social gatherings of young adults whose range of spoken words on any given evening, excluding proper nouns such as names, may never exceed one hundred and fifty. Beyond this, many of the words used in informal conversation are used incorrectly or confusingly, the precedent often set from mistaken use by newscasters or contemporaries.

If the conversation from one million parties were parsed for linguistic breadth, it is unlikely that the range of words used would begin to indicate a language with a lexicon of nearly one million English words, and an extension of these words into applications in specific fields, like chemistry or physics, that easily exceeds eleven million and growing.

In order to participate meaningfully in discussion within a field of specialty, one must expand the facility with the language by mastering both concepts and related words. At some point, a choice is made between the lonely pursuit of excellence and the comfort that by constraining the use of words to familiarly repeated sounds, a social purpose is served.

By “dumbing down” speech, social access is broadened. Intellectually unthreatened people are more open to accepting strangers. And between belonging and exclusion, many chose the path of least resistance. Read More 
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