Thursday, September 21, 2006

How We Got Here

[Update - Noah points out to my great embarrassment that I've totally misunderstood the whole "celebrinerd" thing. Apparently Ken Jennings didn't invent it - he just inspired it. I thought TIME was reporting on a word that he invented as a spoof on their neologisms - but in fact it simply was one of their neologisms. The post below appears exactly as originally blogged.]

I hadn't intended on saying anything more about "celebrinerd," but Ken Jennings has another post on it that contains the following line:

Maybe I haven’t been clear enough about celebrinerd’s many virtues. Here’s the main thing: it saves time. If you needed to express the concept of a somewhat bookish and yet famous personality, but you hadn’t yet mastered “celebrinerd,” what would you say instead? “Celebrity nerd,” I suppose. But look at that! Two extra letters! One extra syllable! Now do you see the service Time magazine performs in coining these brilliant new additions to the language? Newsweek doesn’t care about saving you syllables, that’s for damn sure.

This is meant to be facetious, obviously, but I seriously believe in this as a motivation for language change. Once a language has a core vocabulary (say, 5,000 items or whatever is strictly necessary), many new additions are just that - time savers. They save you having to qualify many of the things you say with sepcifics. You know - words like "creepy." Not, strictly speaking, necessary because we already have "scary" and "unpleasant." But creepy doesn't exactly mean either of those things. It's more like an "it's scary, but in that unnerving, uncomfortable kind of way, not in the running away screaming kind of way." Which is really more articulatory effort than anyone has to put into such things. So "creepy" is born - and as it gets used more, of course, it takes on an irreducible meaning of its own (through associations with contexts etc.).

In proposing this word "celebrinerd," Jennings thinks he can get away with adding a new word to the language because it seems like something useful. In the past, nerds weren't really celebrities, end of story. But starting sometime in the mid-80s (my personal guess is it started with WarGames, but then, I'm biased), at least a subclass of nerds (computer nerds) started to gain some popularity. Things progressed, and now we're at a point where there are some people who seem to be simultaneously examples of the category "nerd" and also of the category "celebrity." Or, more accurately, they seem like celebrities, but still have a kind of second-class status in that category because they're also nerds. Since this is a repeated meme, and since there seem to be a critical mass of them with enough in common that we can talk about them generally, why not go ahead and attach a label to it? As Ken rightly points out, "celebrinerd" saves you some pronounciation (expressing this in terms of "letters" is silly in English, though, since letters do not always neatly correspond to phonemes. You could talk about "saving letters" in most other European languages, though). You would probably just say "celebrity nerd," so why not use the logical truncation? (There are people called Phonologists who actually think it's interesting to figure out what rules people use for truncation. I guess that's a useful thing to do, so let me just say I'm glad they do it so I don't have to and leave it at that.)

So yes, OK, it's funny to say things about how Newsweek doesn't care about saving you syllables, etc. - but joke though this may have been, I think it's right on as a description of how a certain kind of word gets added to a language. Jennings' only real vice here is impatience. It would take a while for the word to reach any kind of noticeable saturation level. I would also add, though I have no evidence for this, that being reported specifically as a neologism in TIME is probably working against it. I think it probably works better if you just have it innocently in print a couple of places and people "pick up on it." Because when you think about it, it's rare in your life that anyone ever told you a useful word for what you were trying to say and you adopted it from that moment forward. Generally I think we pick up new vocabulary items by simply hearing (or seeing) it somewhere, and then being in a similar situation later and producing it because it seems convenient. There are people who make a conscious effort to improve their vocabularies by reading the dictionary, but in my experience they tend to use the words they acquire in this way unconvincingly. The big words they drop are often (subtly) inappropriate to the context, and it gives them away.


At 6:42 AM, Blogger noahpoah said...

Jennings didn't propose 'celebrinerd', Lev Grossman of Time did, which is to say that Grossman coined it (i.e., didn't report on it as a neologism).


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