Ditch the dictionary: Make up your own words

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First aired on Q (18/03/13)

Toronto writer Andrew Kaufman wants us to ditch the dictionary, so that we can create new words and develop a lexicon suitable for the modern age. The author of Born Weird, among other novels, makes his case in an opinion piece for The Guardian called "Why we need to invent new words." He recently dropped by Q to share the rationale behind his creative campaign.

Kaufman believes there's a need to make up new words because "there's lots of new technologies, there's lots of new situations, and the only thing stopping us is this thing called the dictionary." He pointed out that words like "Skyping" and "Googling" get flagged by spell-check programs as not being words, yet they are in common use.

bio-kaufman.jpgAccording to Kaufman, the dictionary is "just a book," and doesn't merit the authority invested in it. "A word exists if I say it and you know what I mean," he said. "That's what my definition is." Usage is what confers legitimacy: "If a word is bad, and there's no need for it, then people won't use it."

Kaufman has two rules for making up words: "One, you can steal from German or Latin... or you can combine two words in common English together," he said. A new word has to fill a gap in the language, either because it addresses "something there was never a word for, or it's something that is recently created that we haven't made a word for yet." He gave the example "breadsinner," which he described as "a husband or father who stays at home and takes care of the kids while the wife goes out and makes money. So it's the guilt felt by the father who stays at home and takes care of the kids."

Other examples include "blursing" (a curse and a blessing), "cidiot" (someone who's lived in the city so long that they've lost everyday, commonplace skills that people in the country regard as basic) and "bironical" ("the tendency or compulsion to appreciate something on both a sincere and ironical level.").

Kaufman admitted that he's being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but he also pointed out that "right now the only people who are really allowed to make words are advertisers or tech guys."

He rejects the notion that a word is legitimate only if it's in the dictionary, and that slang isn't validated. In his opinion piece, Kaufman writes that labelling a word "slang" is the linguistic equivalent of using a racial slur. "It comes with a derogatory connotation, and it comes with a lot of preconceived ideas, and it comes with a certain attitude that diminishes," he explained. "Words are political. So if you want to step outside the social construction you live inside, you need words to do that, and if you haven't given yourself the authority to do that, then you're not going to let that happen."

Ulitimately, Kaufman sees the ability to make up words as a form of self-expression. "Everyone has a unique perspective on the world, everyone's perspective should be fully articulated, and to make that happen you kind of need to make up your own words, right? Politics is changing, gender roles are changing, technology is changing, the language needs to grow to keep up with that."



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