Douglas Adams – master of the neologism


Tory minister Justine Greening became an unintentional figure of fun recently when advising Londoners how to avoid traffic congestion. Instead of telling them, in simple English, to get out of their cars and walk, she suggested they “re-mode”.

It’s easy to see how this crime against plain-speaking occurred. After all, it’s exactly the sort of blue-sky buzzword that’s probably banded about freely in meetings between civil servants and bureaucrats.

Greening’s mistake was introducing it into the public arena, whereupon she was rightly ridiculed for talking such balderdash and being out of touch with Joe and Josephine Public.

“Re-moding” is an example of a neologism – a newly coined (i.e. made-up) word. Mangle a neologism at your peril, as Ms Greening discovered. It will make you sound like you’re a member of an exclusive club which the rest of us simply aren’t smart enough to join.

Far wiser people than government ministers, however, enjoy creating neologisms in whose wit we can all share.

Here are some recent inventions courtesy of journalists on The Washington Post, who put a novel twist on the theme by bestowing humorously-appropriate meanings on existing words.

Coffee: the person upon whom one coughs.

Flabbergasted: appalled over how much weight you have gained.

Esplanade: to attempt an explanation while drunk.

Willy-nilly: impotent.

Negligent: a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.

Balderdash: a rapidly receding hairline.

Circumvent: an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

Cashtration: buying a house thus neutering yourself financially forever.

Giraffiti: vandalism spray-painted surprisingly high.

Sarchasm: the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

Yes, when not deeply immersed in business copywriting, this is how the team at Wordsworks gets its kicks.

Arguably, the master of the neologism was the late Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, who enjoyed inventing funky new words where gaps existed in our current dictionary.

He expressed his addiction thusly: “In life there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist. On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about. Our job, as I see it, is to get these words into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.”

Among his many gems, Adams gave new, phonetically-suggestive definitions to English place-names. He declared, for instance, that ‘grimsby’ should mean “a lump of something gristly and foul-tasting concealed in a mouthful of stew or pie”.

Justine Greening, among others, would do well to read Adams’ neologism materclass The Meaning of Liff before “re-moding” the English language in future…