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Lurkers and Hot Messes–or How to Fill a Linguistic Hole

How to Make Your Own Shakespearean Insults:

shakespearean insults

My last few posts have been pretty heady-and-heavy, so I thought I’d lighten up a little this time around and play with language a bit.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about neologisms (invented expressions) and linguistic holes (understandable concepts for which our language lacks a word or phrase).

In some ways, these are two sides of the same coin–the use of language to express the seemingly inexpressible.

Neologisms seem the special province of writers, for who delights more in creative language than we do?

Shakespeare is hands-down the champion in this regard, as demonstrated by the now-famous worksheet for creating one’s own Shakespearean insults that sits atop this post. (Warning: prepare to get lost for a while, thou pribbling, motley-minded puttock!)

Notable inventions from other famous authors include:

Twitter: Geoffrey Chaucer

Yahoo: Jonathan Swift

Freelance: Sir Walter Scott

Pedestrian: William Wordsworth

Butterfingers: Charles Dickens

Banana Republic: O. Henry

Grinch: Rudyard Kipling

Nerd: Dr. Seuss

Factoid: Norman Mailer

Gremlin: Roald Dahl

It’s not just the literati who come up with new words, of course. For example:

“Dadbod” was coined by Mackenzie Pearson, a Clemson sophomore who wrote an essay, “Why Girls Love the Dad Bod” (for a male body best described as “softly round”)

Some of my personal favorites among the recently coined can only be attributed reliably to our good friend Anonymous, such as:

Cupertino Effect: The tendency of a spell checker to suggest or autocorrect with inappropriate words.

Digital Surgery: Post-production techniques used to make actors appear taller, slimmer, less wrinkled, etc.

Manspreading: When a male rider on public transit sits with his legs spread wide in order to discourage anyone taking the seats to either side.

Precrastinator: Someone who performs a task sooner than necessary, particularly as a way of delaying a bigger or more stressful task.

Not to mention the two neologisms in the title of this post:

Lurker: An Internet user who goes to blogs, chat rooms, message boards, and comment threads but never participates.

Hot Mess: A person, thing, or event that is extremely disorganized or unsuccessful.

Last but not least, there’s this mini-scene from The Simpsons:

Two teachers stand at the back of the auditorium as someone recites Springfield’s motto:

A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

Teacher 1: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield. 

Teacher 2: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.


Neologisms, of course, are just another version of slang, which always strives for not just function but flare.

Want to disappear down a rabbit hole for a few hours? Try a slang website, like this one [1] from the U.K.

Personal favorites (among those I can actually mention here—a great many are wildly obscene) include:

faffer (a person who fusses or dithers)

fannybaws (an idiot, a fool)

firtle (to appear busy without actually achieving anything)

flannel (nonsense)

flimp (a taxi driver’s term for an unbooked fare)

folding (cash—“holding the folding”)

fundy (fundamentalist)

And that’s just the Fs!

Portmanteau Words

Then there’s the special case where words get created by fusing two others:

workaholic (work + alcoholic)

bashtag (bash + hashtag)

fabtastic (fabulous + fantastic)

fuddled (foggy + muddled)

hacktivism (hack + activism)

lamestream (lame + mainstream)

blook (book written by a blogger)

Frankenfood (genetically modified edibles)

phubbing (snubbing someone by focusing on your phone).

Lewis Carroll might be the all-time master of this particular sub-genre—not surprising, since he coined the term used to describe it: “portmanteau word.” Examples:

chortle (chuckle + snort)

galumph (gallop + triumphant)

mimsy (miserable + flimsy, with a hint of prim thrown in)

slithy (slimy + lithe)

snark (snort + bark).

But James Joyce was no slouch either. Consider these from Finnegan’s Wake:

ethiquetical (ethical + etiquette)

sinduced (sin + seduced)

fadograph (fade + photograph)

blinkard (blink + hard).

Finally, some portmanteau words are unintentional, such as President Bush’s “misunderestimated,” and Sarah Palin’s “refudiate.”

Linguistic Holes

This concept is a bit like the inverse of a neologism—it refers to a concept for which no word exists in English, such as l’esprit de l’escalier (French for that snappy comeback you only think of once the moment has passed).

Some of my other favorites:

Koi No Yokan (Japanese): The feeling upon first meeting someone that the two of you will fall in love.

Tartle (Scottish): The panicky hesitation you feel before having to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember.

Kummerspeck (German): Excess weight gained from emotional overeating.

Greng-jai (Thai): The feeling you get when you want someone to do something for you because it would put them out.

Schlemiel and schlimazel (Yiddish): For Laverne & Shirley fans. Someone prone to bad luck, but distinguished by active or passive expression. The schlemiel is the one who always spills his coffee; the schlimazel is the one on whom it’s always spilled.

Palegg (Norwegian): Any ingredient, no matter how “creative,” for a sandwich.

Shemomedjamo (Georgian): When you continue to eat an entire meal despite feeling full.

Layogenic (Tagalog): Something that looks okay from a distance, but not up close.

Seigneur-terraces (French): Someone who sits at a café table for hours but spends little.

Pana Po’o (Hawaiian): To scratch your head in order to help you remember.

Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish): Someone who wears his shirttails out.

Cavoli Riscaldati (Italian): The result of trying to revive an unworkable relationship. Translates to “reheated cabbage.”

Forelsket (Norwegian): The specific feeling experienced while falling in love, in contrast to being in love.

Aşermek (Turkish): To crave certain foods while pregnant.

Madrugada (Spanish): The time of day between late at night (i.e. past midnight) and early morning.

Litost (Czech): Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) described this emotion as “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” (A more detailed account of Kundera’s analysis can be found here [2].)

Augenblicksgott (German): A minor divinity that passes in the blink of an eye and has a momentary effect.

Bilita Mpash (Bantu): An amazing dream. The opposite of a nightmare.

Shouganai (Japanese): Something that cannot be helped, so why worry about it?

Fargin (Yiddish): To wholeheartedly appreciate the success of others.

I will be on the road somewhere between San Francisco and New Orleans when this post goes up, so I most likely will be unable to respond to your comments until late tonight.

But for now—do you have any favorite neologisms or linguistic holes? Please share them with your fellow Unboxers (itself a neologism).

In particular: have you invented any neologisms yourself? Have you encountered a linguistic hole in your writing–a state of mind or complex emotion that defied easy description in English?


About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.