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Monday, January 23, 2006

World of Wordcraft

Have you ever wanted to just make up a word? Not a silly, nonsense word, but a real word, with meaning and style and derivation. That's where I was last week. I was writing something, and I couldn't think of the word I wanted to use. It was right there -- on the tip of my tongue -- and I just couldn't quite tease it out! I knew the meaning I needed, and I knew the connotations I wanted. I even knew the cadence and tone it should have, but I just couldn't quite think of the word.

After racking my brain for a few minutes, I resorted to Dictionary.com, where I looked up some related words, then cross-referenced them in the thesaurus. Finally, after another five to ten minutes of word digging, I found the word I was thinking of...and it wasn't right. I knew, with complete certainty, that it was the word I'd sought, but it wasn't the word I wanted. I knew what the word I wanted sounded like, looked like, felt like, but it simply didn't exist. At that moment, I seriously considered literally inventing it, but finally decided against doing so, since it might have distracted from my main point.

Later that day, I got to read through a great interview from an MIT appearance with the guys who do Penny Arcade. One quote from Jerry "Tycho" Holkins really jumped out at me:
I think of myself as sort of collecting words....I amass these words, and then make them do battle.... My word arrangement and my tone arrangement... this is probably getting too serious, but it’s super-interesting to me. I like to set up a sentence that is done about as well as I can do it, and sometimes that requires a strange or over-specific word...
What a wonderful image! Words, doing battle with each other to convey meaning! Even though it differs somewhat from my internal concept of composition, I can absolutely understand where he's coming from. Words have lives, and when you throw them together in sentences and paragraphs and pages, they form communities and cultures, all of which have personalities and flavors every bit as real to me as actual cities and towns.

Ironically, for someone who loves words and language, it's incredibly difficult to convey to other people what words mean to me. Where Jerry thinks of words doing battle, my vision is more like a dance. Or maybe marching band drill is a better analogy: They move together in unison, but in the blink of an eye, they rearrange themselves into a completely new and unexpected form. Or ballroom dance: They spin and swirl in the prescribed forms and patterns, but still manage to express their individuality with original flourishes. Or perhaps Aikido: The words blend and flow together, exchanging control of the motion until one finally completes the form and throws the other, making their point.

Poets and songwriters probably see words in a way similar to mine. Whenever I'm writing something, I concern myself with the tone and cadence as much as the meaning. See that last sentence? "Tone and cadence" had the rhythm I wanted, but "cadence and tone" didn't. That was no accident, it was a conscious decision, albeit a snap one.

I suspect that may be why I like computer programming. In code, every statement has a very specific meaning, just as no two words mean exactly the same thing. And like words, computer statements have subtexts, metameanings, and connotations, in the forms of efficiency, speed, and memory use. Just as composing a sentence in English requires finding the exact arrangement of syllables, tones, and definitions to convey my intended meaning, writing code in a programming language requires finding the exactly arrangement of commands, controls, and structures to meet my purpose. Both cases are similar to one of those big pictures that are made up of hundreds of smaller pictures, where the parts of each individual picture have to be just so in order for the super-picture to form correctly.

So, that's how words look to me, and that's why, when I can't find a word that meets my criteria, I'm always sorely tempted to create one that does. Afterall, Shakespeare did it. Unfortunately, if you're not Shakespeare, people tend to try to medicate you when you start talking about the "colors of phrases" and inventing your own new words. Too bad, because the English language is missing out on some great words.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Lance said...

What does this have to do with World of Warcraft!? :)

I make up words all the time in everyday speak. Usually, it's mixing words with prefixes and/or suffixes that shouldn't belong, but fit in the sentence or conversation.

Lately, I just haven't had time to really write anything, so I think I've lost all connectivity to any written word. Too bad I have several stories waiting to be written.

1/24/2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger Sassy said...

See Lance, that's why you sooo should love "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly," and "Serenity." Whendon does that all the time.

1/24/2006 10:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

You really would like Buffy, Lance, but Firefly might be a better gateway show for you. Who doesn't like cowboys in space?!

But I'm not just talking about mixing and matching unexpected pre- and suf-fixes, I'm talking about actual new root words that express compound ideas not currently encapsulated in existing English words.

The problem is that nobody would know what they meant the first time I used them, then everyone who didn't know me would just think I was a weirdo.

(People who know me are already aware of that, of course.)

1/24/2006 10:04 PM  

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