The other day I was giggling at the music video of "LDN" as Lily Allen struggles to describe the sort of music she's looking for:
"I was wondering if you have any kinda like sort of punky, electronica.... kinda grime.... kinda like new wave grime.... kind of maybe like more broken beats.... like kinda dub-y broken beats, but a little bit kinda soulful? Like kinda drum & bass-y but kinda more broken drum & bass.... kinda broken beats but break-beat kinda broken drum & bass kinda....y'know what I mean?"
The record store employee stares at her blankly. Poor Lily.
This week the word galumph was one of Google's Words of the Day and seeing it there on display before the whole world reawakened my lifelong vanity quest to 1) find a naked idea in need of a word, 2) tailor the perfect word for it, 3) sit back enjoy the fame when my Perfect Word is canonized in the Oxford English Dictionary.
As you may know, Lewis Carroll coined two such words that now appear in every pocket dictionary: galumph, from "gallop" and "triumph," which means to lumber along in a joyful but clumsy way, and chortle, from "chuckle" and "snort," which means a snorting sort of laugh. I know what you're thinking: "However did we cope before we had words for these things??" It is indeed hard to imagine such a dark time. Of course, Lewis Carroll is nothing to Shakespeare, who is the first written source for a bazillion words we use today, but I'm excluding Shakespeare from the present discussion because it's way too easy to launch new words when the greatest ruler of the Western World is one of your groupies.
Elizabeth R: "Dispatch a Proclamation: all Christian gentlemen shall employ the word 'kickie-wickie' when insulting their wives. This on pain of death."
Royal Proclaimer: "Yes, Your Majesty. Pray, how dost thou spell 'kickie-wickie'?"
Unfortunately, I'm not chummy with any monarchs and my invented words have fallen flat. For instance, a cousin was trying to describe the mix of infatuation and caring she felt for a guy she was dating. I suggested she was feeling smitterpated (smitten and twitterpated at the same time). I got a courtesy laugh, but the word never made another appearance in her love stories.
I also invented a word for a friend spending a semester in Taiwan. In her letters she described the discomfort of sleeping on the unadorned board that was her bed. In my reply I proudly unveiled the word mattresslessness to describe her sad state, but again, no go. I grant that it's not a very useful word unless you go camping a lot. But maybe people could use it figuratively? As in "I'm tossing and turning on the mattresslessness of solitude?" C'mon -- someone throw me a bone.
Of course, according to Humpty Dumpty, "real" meaning is irrelevant. He recommends you find a word you like and use it to mean anything and everything. However, if you go this route you should bear in mind that there are strings attached:
'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -- that's all.'
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'
'Would you tell me, please,' said Alice 'what that means?'
'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'
'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'
So if you're independently wealthy, just pick a word and go with it. I recommend something impressive-sounding, like lugubrious.
My crazy aunts and uncle invented an elaborate childhood language that didn't die as they grew up -- rather they added new words over the years to give a goofy sparkle to the yicky bits of adulthood. For example, you had your gibs which were little bits of unidentified nastiness and your aquagrogans which were the gifts small children add to the bathwater (but only if they float).
My uncle was especially good at coming up with just the right word for things. He disappeared a couple years ago and I was fortunate that fate gave us one last evening together just a few days before he was last seen. That night I was moaning to him about a situation at work. I was assigned to work with a particular coworker known for her attack-the-bleeding business techniques. Working with her had sent me spiraling into week after week of teeth-grinding, tummy-aching nightmares, and I felt I was going to snap under the pressure of trying to appease her. My uncle listened sympathetically to my tales of woe and then said, "You ever watch those National Geographic shows? She sounds like the big nasty head gorilla in a gorilla tribe. The one they call the alpha-male, y'know? So I guess that would make her the alpha-b****?"
The Perfect Word. In the weeks that followed it floated me, silently giggling, through many a three-alarm showdown at work. It was his last gift to me, and what a beaut. Wherever you are, Uncle Greg, this post's for you. God bless your lugubrious* soul.
*Here, lugubrious means "uniquely witty, with a twist of lime."