Depending on how you define “word”, the Oxford English dictionary folks estimate there are 750,000 words available in the English language to allow us to accurately express the swirl of ideas in our minds. To put that into perspective, William Shakespeare, arguably the English language’s most eloquent practitioner, used only 31,534 words (including proper names) in all of his sonnets and plays. Considering that the Immortal Bard got by with just over 30,000, wouldn’t you think that the rest of us could manage to sufficiently express ourselves with 750,000?
Apparently, the answer is, no. Two recent books seek to expand the English language in both depth and breadth in order to further advance our ability to capture and recount life in the 21st century: Semantricks, a dictionary of words you thought you knew, which deepens the language by adding humorous new definitions to existing words, and The Daily Candy Lexicon, words that don’t exist but should, which broadens the language with new words that the authors feel are necessary for modern life.
Semantricks, a dictionary of words you thought you knew, authored by Lewis M Gediman with Nino DeNicola, Paul Gediman and Michael B. Lauder, humbly purports itself to be a glorified collection of puns, it’s introduction beginning, “It’s enough that you bought this book; no need to read it. Give it to someone you dislike … a little of this material goes a long way. And yet, paradoxically, all of it doesn’t go very far”. While the introduction reads as much like an apology as an explanation, lovers of wordplay will find no apology necessary.
The included re-definitions certainly do indulge in puns (e.g. Abundance: A rhythmic wriggling of the buttocks to music), but the authors frequently transcend the pun by creating intricate and delightful new meanings for old words that retain, as they state, “at least a tangential reference to the meaning of the original word”. For instance:
Custody: Responsibility for egg pudding
Hello: Opposite of Halo
Ineffable: Determinedly chaste
Logorrhea: Excessive timber harvesting
Possum: Risk-averse member of posse
The line between the groan-worthy puns and the more sophisticated play-on-words may be indistinguishable for some — certain people would no doubt dismiss reading this book as a waste of time bested only by the writing of the book — but for those of us who enjoy stretching the language so that it might contain our imagined concepts, this book is a labor of love. Twisted and peculiar affection, true, but love is defined by those within the throes of it. I was smitten from the start, romanced by the tongue-in-cheek charm of words like:
Instigate: Ready-made fence entrance
Scurry: Fast-food favorite in India
Flagrant: Outrageously aromatic
As the introduction warns, a little goes a long way, but Semantricks is like wasabi: It’s not for everyone, but by limiting the size of the serving, it can be enjoyed with improbable frequency.
The Daily Candy Lexicon, words that don’t exist but should, written by the editors of DailyCandy.com, has a different approach to redefining language. While Semantricks mimics a dictionary in its layout, orderly organizing its contents for easy reference, The Daily Candy Lexicon reads more like a travel guide for someone visiting the set of Sex and the City. On the back cover the copy claims that the book is “a peek into a world where style, sass, and snazzy shoes reign”; the contents are categorized into chapters such as work, food, shopping, and nightlife, each chapter having its own two to four page introduction; the “environment” chapter begins, “the Daily Candy office isn’t exactly teeming with nature girls”. This is a “Song of Myself” for the me generation, condensed to a glossary.
The trouble with the book can be found in the opening headline of the book’s press release: “Finally! A handy guide to the dialect of young, urban, female hipsters”. This is certainly what it wants to be, but this is not like Moon and Frank Zappa’s song “Valley Girl”, which captured and distributed an actual vernacular; this is more like Ellsworth Toohey’s use of “The Gallant Gallstone” in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, a list of words fabricated with the intention of pushing them into use. Like Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, the authors revel in their own fabulousness and invite the reader to enjoy the spectacle, less a book about words than a book about lifestyle, irreverent and self-satisfied.
To its credit, The Daily Candy Lexicon does contain some enjoyable words, mostly achieved by mutating existing words and phrases to fit a modern circumstance. Some are clunky and uninspired (Inshopnia: A disorder marked by making unnecessary online purchases in the wee hours due to insomnia), but others capture the affluent urban vibe with gleeful relish:
Spammelier: a sommelier who gives you too many choices
Tart Fuel: Girlie drinks, e.g. cosmos, kirs, or anything that tastes like Kool-Aid
Marshmellow: the food-induced crash and coma following a sugar/dessert binge
Snoopid: To leave and obvious trail when snooping through your mate’s belongings
Sinabler: Someone who’s a bad influence on your diet
The book tries very hard to be the linguistic bible for the aspiring urban bon vivant, and therein lies both its strength and its weakness: Just as Sex and the City was a huge hit with a limited but devoted demographic while being vociferously dismissed or ignored by larger segments of the population, this is a sassy and playful read that ought to find its way onto the nightstands of many a shoe-obsessed drinker of tart fuel, but is unlikely to resonate with the population as a whole. (Absurdity duly noted — as if any book of “new definitions” will ever achieve best-seller status.)
Does the English language really need a few hundred more words in order to be genuinely comprehensive? Certainly not. But since, like Shakespeare, we are already ignoring the bulk of the available words, a few amusing new bon mots isn’t going to clutter the word soup any further. And next time someone uses the word “jejune”, you can smile to yourself and think of the Semantricks definition of the word: “The m-month between M-May and J-July”.