And the words slide into the spot ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities we call meaning.
— Anthony Burgess
Invent-A-Word (2): 16,000 Hyphens Perish—World Aghast!
In 2007, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed the hyphen from over sixteen thousand words, recognizing either the open or closed form as correct. Bumble-bee was closed and became bumblebee. In contrast, water-bed opened to become water bed. This practice enjoys ample historical precedent. To-day and to-morrow evolved over centuries into the compressed form we use today.
Words are hyphenated to (a) form a single idea, or (b) yield a unique effect. While this description applies to invented words, the power of freshness inevitably lends a degree of more emotive strength and resonance when such vocabulary is employed correctly.
This month we consider Paperbacks from Hell from Quirk Books, author Grady Hendrix’s tour de force examination of the modern horror novel from its rise in the 1970s to its fall in the 1990s. Grady employs a sensational style called twisting words to recreate a time when multi-million-dollar book sales were commonplace, and six-figure careers were made overnight. While the depth of research illuminating Paperbacks is of the highest caliber, the author’s mastery of improvisational phraseology and word genesis is stunningly brilliant, a courageous art form to itself.
Consider these inventions: insanity vortex, Gestapokauns, Satan Sleuth, zomboid shuffle, geyser of crazy, deathwomb, edgelords—fevered mutations leading to phrases such as: What danger signs should patients look for when selecting a skeleton doctor? Well, if the doctor refers to patients as “poor, unlucky bastards,” be careful.
Hyphenates such as were-shark, were-Egyptian, and were-bear abound. Will any of these conjurations find a home in the next major revision of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary)? A rare breed of literary detective known as a “new word lexicographer” will be the word-sleuth to track such terror-inspired growths, harvesting those exhibiting endurance, value, and frequency of use. One would hope so. Such vivid colors and wild currents of idiomatic fragrance have a place in the complete lexicon.
Grady Hendrix on Twisting Words
Grady agreed to take a moment from a busy touring schedule to discuss twisting words with HWA members. Grady Hendrix, raw and unedited:
As a former British colony, Hong Kong legally required movies to have subtitles, but no one said they needed to be good. The cheapest and least important part of the movie, the subtitles were written by people with a limited grasp of English (sometimes recruited off the street) and with an English-Chinese dictionary in one hand. When I fell in love with Hong Kong movies in the early Nineties, the results were glorious. Phrases like “Damn you, stink man.” and “I will take gastric lavage,” and “It’s getting crowdy” entered my vocabulary; but I wasn’t laughing at the mistranslations, I was dazzled. Hong Kong movies were dynamic and kinetic, and the idea that you could drop verbs and nouns from sentences, graft words to each other, invent words out of whole cloth, do anything you wanted to keep things moving fast was a revelation to me. The effect was what mattered, not obeying the rules. I picked up a book by a best-selling author recently and had to put it down after a few chapters because their writing was so loose and baggy, so loaded with commonplace phrases and familiar expressions that it actually cramped my brain. Who wants to write like this? Who wants their pages to be bowls of milky oatmeal that slide, smooth, and unnoticed, down the reader’s gullet? Chuck Palahniuk talks about phrases that “burn the tongue,” and that’s the effect I want. Reading my sentences should feel like being punched in the eyeballs, over and over again. I don’t always get there, but I try.
From Constant Readers
Request for a review of two invented words came in this month. Thanks to HWA newsletter readers Marge and Georgia.
Nonshalaka: Definition: Clueless nonchalance. Phrase definition: “There were six sketchy guys hanging out at the corner, but Joe just walked up, all nonshalaka, to ask for a light.”
Analysis: When Georgia added an invented word to this sentence she eliminated the need for several paragraphs of description and characterization, increasing the pace of the scene. Nonshalaka draws a striking portrait of seven young men and the urban world they inhabit.
Anthony Burgess coined many invented words and phrases in A Clockwork Orange, instilling an unsettling sense of a dystopian reality. Chumble, warbles, guff, and flatblock are four examples from the language the characters use, which Burgess called “Natsat,” a patois blended from several languages—verbal suggestion of cultural decay.
Five stars awarded to Georgia for this invented word. After an hour of assembling hyphenates, nothing came close to the concision and fun of nonshalaka.
Mind-meld (Vulcan mind meld) suggested by Marge: The most frequent use of mind-meld is the hyphenated form, the open form less frequent, but equally correct. Definition: (as noun): the fusion of minds allowing non-verbal communication and understanding. Definition (as verb): to share information telepathically. The closed form, mindmeld, is the property of Cisco, acquired with the AI interface company Mindmeld. Vulcan mind meld was coined by Shimon Wincelberg in the STAR TREK episode “Dagger of The Mind,” airing November 3, 1966. Writing credit appears under the name S. Bar-David (Shimon, Son of David).
Questions, Answers, and Rules of Use
While ex-, all-, quasi-, self-, anti-, counter-, inter-, non-, and semi-, are most often seen in the hyphenated form, each presents exceptions to the rule: antibiotics, counterpane, international, nonstop. Use and misuse of the hyphen involve accepting the fluid truth that no provision is universally correct. Cry-baby, low-life, log-jam are three examples of words that opened to become two words or closed to become one in 2007. What’s your guess? Answer below.
The following hyphenated words share the same period of recognized use: bar-hopping, double-blind, entry-level, fall-out, and mai-tai. Care to guess the year? Each has held onto its hyphen for decades. Answer below. (Hint: Harry S. Truman was in the sixth year of his presidency).
Question: how long does it take to read the OED? For a lexicographer just over forty hours. For a horror writer? How much time do we have before the sun burns down to a cinder?
Please send vocabulary of interest to: email@example.com
Attribution: the Oxford English Dictionary, Reuter’s, wordorigin.org, Grady Hendrix, quoting from Paperbacks from Hell, Quirk Books. Grady Hendrix, Raw and Unedited, by special request. Marge and Georgia. The Gila Queen. Editor Ben Zimmer, Oxford University Press. Quora, Andrea Le. Answer: crybaby, lowlife, logjam. Year: 1950.