There’s Not Always A Word For It
A letter reaches me from reader John Healey in South Australia who has twigged one of the longest-running games I’ve been playing in my novels. My love of esoteric language has occasionally encouraged me to add rare words, and to sometimes make them up. I figured that if Billy Shakespeare could invent over 1,700 words, I could at least manage a handful.
Mr Healey writes, ‘As a fan of Bryant and May from the beginning, I take great delight in your occasional use of obscure words, such as â€œessoinmentâ€ and â€œmataelogianâ€.
I work as a reader for the Oxford English Dictionary, mostly dealing with mediaeval texts. But I contribute quotations from modern books when I come across them. I thought you might like to know that I have sent the O.E.D. slips for the adjectives â€œobganiatoryâ€ and â€œfritzingâ€, referencingÂ Oranges and Lemons.
I have also, in the past, sent in slips for the new words â€œchatoyanceâ€ (Rune), â€œchoreatingâ€, (Darkest Day), â€œcrepusculateâ€ and â€œsuspirantâ€ (Spanky), the new sense of â€œscissorâ€, with reference to stage movement (Full Dark House) and a postdating of â€œapricityâ€ (Wild Chamber). None of these are in the dictionary as yet, as you are probably aware. It may take some time for the editors to incorporate them into the online third edition of O.E.D. that is presently being prepared but I am sure they will eventually appear, with quotations from your books.’
A couple of points; a background in Latin helps if you’re planning to create a word (I’m still in correspondence with my old Latin master). And a cavalier attitude to word-slinging is essential. Like me you’ll commit all sorts of appalling solecisms along the way but it’s bloody good fun. You need to be careful about antanaclasis (using the same word in different senses) and frequentative suffixes (like switching ‘le’ to the end of a word) but if you come up with the basic form someone else can figure out the declensions.
Easier than this is repurposing old words for new uses. You can start with medieval cookery instructions or Jacobean stage directions and find a strong visual image that mirrors a modern action for which there is no word. Language is robust enough to withstand your tinkerings; it is continually adapted by its users.
For example, the term for an adder – one of the two British snakes everyone here knows about – originally referred to a German natter snake, and became anglicised to ‘a nadder’, but users misheard and detached the ‘n’ by the process known as metanalysis.
Old spellings varied because they were primarily heard rather than read – and to be honest, what does it matter if the spelling varies a little? So long as a language breathes it has life.