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Fan-diddly-damn-tastic!

by Mark Peters

October 3, 2008

The whirly-twirly-leapy-flippy world of nonce words

When something is crappy, do you ever yearn for synonyms such as crapitudinous, crapfestacular, and craposcopic?Could you use some new insults along the lines of über-turd-burger, trashwad, celebu-shambles, sleazeballette, arch-buttmunch, and poopoobuckethead?Does it brown your Cheese Doodles or get your monkeys in a bunch when you can't find the words to adequately describe a two-donut-dejellification, green-glowing-nano-slime-ammo-pack, or Australian schnauzer-doodle-whatever-poo?If you answered yes to any of these questions-or at least found the questions intriguing-then you're a fan of what linguists call nonce words: terms coined for a single occasion that don't catch on at all.I've cultivated a daily, crack-like habit of documenting nonce words such as doctorcest, bedoofused, smasho-crasho, and hench-commissioner on (shameless plug alert) my blog Wordlustitude. Like kittens at an angry-bear convention, these words are unlikely to see the light of day without outside intervention, and I am that intervening power (when my jai alai schedule permits).It's common for linguists and lexicographers-on the lookout for terms that linger in the lingo for more than a cup of coffee-to use the phrase "just a nonce word." But to me, that's like saying "just a two-hour massage" or "just a bucket of mint chocolate cookie ice cream." Much like nicknames, slang, and eggcorns, nonce words show the verbal creativity of the masses; they are small examples of everyday wordplay and conversational (or compositional) pleasure.Just as our brief, passing, temporary human lives are valuable-or so I've heard-short-lived nonce words are also worth thinking about, even as they die with dignity (or silliness, whatever). They are Polaroid-like moment-capturers that demonstrate language change in action-and most are entertaining enough to warm the cocoa of all but the crustiest of communicators.But hey, don't take my word for it that unsuccessful words are worth collecting and thinking about: read Michael Adams' Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon or forthcoming Slang: The People's Poetry. Or take a gander at that motherfraker of all reference books, the Oxford English Dictionary, which has plenty of nonces, most of which are evidence of significant word trends, often in the linguistic Legoland of suffixation.For example, the OED records mossify, poorify, princify, tubify, and pumkinfier-all rare, oddball words to be sure, demonstrating both the productivity of -ify and the timeless tendency to newify language with novel words. Many of the old gems collected in the OED are fairly self defining-like dastardling, deericide, demonette, infantocracy, moanification, pigfully, poundiferous, squirtical, tigerocious, and traitorology. Here's a closer look at five others:podicate, 1853This sounds like an advanced interstellar civilization's trusty method of soul-scooping, guaranteed to leave zombified pod people with nary a scratch or stain, but it really means "To slide or move along on one's buttocks." I've seen a shih-tzu named Jed podicate along the pavement post-poop, in what I can only guess is a glimpse into our evolutionary past, to a time before cavepeople invented toilet paper and had to podicate their tushies clean.whip-broth, 1615Mmmmm… I mean, yowtch! Snifflers and snot-nosed citizens should note that a whip-broth won't cure your cold; it means "a taste of the whip."polydiabolism, 1876I'm an atheist, but I can't help noticing the world is full of major evils and minor badnesses and too much pea soup. Though I've considered turning to Odin or Lenny the Leprechaun as my personal savior, maybe I'll just go with polydiabolism: "belief in many devils or evil spirits."ding-dong-doggedly, 1870A Ned Flanders-ism? Nah, this 1870 word predates his diddly-ness by over a century. It was used by Charles Dickens here: "I have been most perservingly and ding-dong-doggedly at work."gumple-foisted, 1824Meaning "sulky, out of temper," this term will be handy as duct tape if bratty and petulant and stink-faced are appearing in your blogs and soliloquies too often.So nonce away, blogareenos, and enjoy the nonces of others. Until chimps and bonobos and cyborgs catch up and start coining the likes of pre-schmoopification or discombobulatoriness, noncing is one of the last known talents of the hairy ape that's unique and non-toxic.And if anyone tells you a nonce word is not a word, well…That's craposterous.
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