English, like many languages, evolved organically over the centuries and resembles a fruit salad of phrases, grammatical inconsistencies and inexplicable spelling, made up from tastes and textures tossed in from Delhi to Denmark.
Over centuries, certain trends and peculiarities emerged, like rhyming poetry, puns, malapropisms, alliteration and spoonerisms. These linguistic quirks are the dollops of ice cream on the fruit salad of a language. They add to the flavour with a twist of wit, playfulness or pathos, and I wonder if similar tangs titillate other tongues like Cantonese, Urdu or Swahili.
Well, these ‘play on words’ are still evolving in the English language today, and I don’t know about yours, but my ancient computer (diesel) doesn’t even recognise the word ‘neologism’. (It’s stuck in American-spell). However, by going old school, to coin a phrase, I dusted off and thumbed through a tried and tested Oxford English Dictionary, and the penny dropped.
Neologism is ‘word-coining’ – the fairly recent art of analysing the components of a word and using them to portray something entirely different.
So, this concept of literary tomfoolery got us hacking through the old spider-webs in The Explanation of Everything archives, and the somewhat newer webs on the internet, to start compiling a modern alternate dictionary. So far, the elves have found a handful of potentials.
Described as a noun, coffee is the person upon whom one coughs, so a coffer – apart from being a casket – does the coughing. Sadly, your bathroom scale doesn’t lie, so it’s understandable that if you’re appalled at how much weight you’ve gained, you’d be flabbergasted.
Now, we’re all aware that many fitness junkies and gym-club jocks pursue a taut six-pack, and some proudly achieve it. But to abdicate is to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
A more savoury meaning for flatulence is the emergency vehicle that arrives when you’ve been run over by a steamroller. Nothing too rude or distasteful about that really, but only slightly offensive is the word negligent. This describes a condition in which a lady absentmindedly answers the door to a man in her underwear. And sticking with the almost rude ones, rectitude is the formal, dignified attitude adopted by a respected proctologist. Pokemon is a Rastafarian one.
Balderdash, according to the elves, describes a rapidly receding hairline, and lymph is to walk with a lisp. They also decided that seizure means Roman Emperor, and willy-nilly (also slightly rude) is just a polite reference to impotence. Esplanade is to attempt an explanation whilst drunk, and circumvent is the opening in the front of underpants worn by Jewish men.
If you think that is linguistic lunacy, how about this (slightly embellished) extract from an email by Margo Roark. The spelling of every word is correct according to the computer’s English spell-check, and must confuse the hell out of anyone trying to make head or tail of this ridiculous language. (Read aloud.)
Eye heifer spell cheque. It came with my pea sea, and marques miss steaks eye ken knot sea. Eye strike the quays and weight four it two say weather eye am wrong oar write. But aim shore your please two no, it’s rare lea ever wrong – purr fiction awl the weigh. My chequer tolled me. Sew their!
Other phrases can be even more confusing, like when two narcissists meet, it’s an I for an I. A shotgun wedding is literally a case of wife or death, but sadly some guys require a mistress to break the monogamy. In such cases condoms should be used on every conceivable occasion.
Adding to the tomfoolery, Douglas Adams in his book The Meaning of Liff, has compiled a dictionary of newly-invented words for everyday occurrences where no word existed before. Like the 4th wheel on the supermarket trolley that just spins mindlessly round and round, the cleaning up you do at home before the cleaner arrives, or creating artworks from the chewing-gum under restaurant tables. Well worth a squizz.
Any weigh, god a go, sew chairs till necks thyme.