DECEMBER 26, 2013
IN 1906, the newspaper columnist Ambrose Bierce published The Cynic’s Workbook, later retitled The Devil’s Dictionary, a self-described comic dictionary that was quickly embraced by word enthusiasts and eventually discovered by the general public. Education, he wrote, is “that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” An egoist, according to Bierce, is “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than me.” His new sardonic definitions of previously distinguished words became a reference book of sorts for the caustic.
Many similarly playful lexicons were to follow. In book form and online, there now exists a sizeable collection of fun, sarcastic, rule-bending vocabulary expanders: The Contradictionary; The Daily Candy Lexicon: Words that Don’t Exist But Should; Wordnik; Urban Dictionary; and now Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century. In the tradition of Bierce’s saucy glossaries, Liesl Schillinger amuses and entertains with her coinages. Wordbirds combines wit, humor, words and, yes, birds to help us talk about funny moments, odd people, and in some cases, ourselves.
Are you the trusting type who casually tosses your wallet, purse, laptop and other valuables in an unlocked gym locker? In that case, you might qualify as a loctimist. Do you put off dating for a variety of reasons, like fear of intimacy, busy schedule, or lack of self-esteem? You could be a procrastidater. These, and many other fitting neologisms are presented in this delightful volume, a welcome addition to a word lover’s library.
In Wordbirds, Schillinger demonstrates a keen talent for zooming in on expressions missing from our vocabulary. What’s particularly impressive is her use of traditional word formation processes to make these newbies sound like they have been around for years. English, like other Germanic languages, lends itself nicely to the creation of new words in a variety of ways. It allows blends such as emoticon, truncations such as blog, and portmanteaux such as brunch. There are compounds like six-pack, horsefly, and downsize, and generic trademarks such as Band-aid, Kleenex, and Levi’s. Moreover, changes in lexical categories or meanings are constant, such as friend’s recent Facebook-aided trajectory from noun to verb. and sick’s semantic shift from ill to awesome. (It’s worth noting that awesome has, itself, undergone a change from its initial meaning of “inspiring awe,” to the less reverent “very good.” Although this downward shift in status might seem drastic, consider its relative, awful, which, over the years, has been downgraded from “full of awe” to “extremely unpleasant.”)
Schillinger crafts much of her lexicon by following these standard word formation processes. She proposes a blend for the person who bikes in the dead of winter (icyclist), and a compound for the person who types too loudly at the keyboard (word pecker). She has an eponymous word for the experience of being bombarded by persistent baby music and videos (baby-Einstoned), and suggests that a passenger who persistently criticizes the driver of a car be dubbed a nagivator.
In addition to maintaining her Wordbirds Tumblr website since 2009, Schillinger is a prolific literary critic, journalist, and translator. It makes sense that she would have an interest in words, but birds? Her enthusiasm for connecting these improbable companions is unprecedented. We do have English expressions that come from birds, like nesting, chick, mother hen, cuckoo, and dodo, but Schillinger isn’t deriving words from birds. Rather, she and illustrator Elizabeth Zechel use birds as backdrops to epitomize the absurdity, humor, severity, or levity of each new term.
Her book’s first entry wordbird, is defined as “a memorable neologism whose meaning can be effectively and whimsically enhanced by an accompanying bird drawing.” The Author’s Note prompted me to head to YouTube, where I found myself mesmerized by Tony Andreason, the lead singer of the 1960s rock band The Trashmen. As Andreason struts around stage in a sporty, tight fitting suit, he unhinges teens with his frenzied, arm flapping, tiptoe-walking version of “Surfin’ Bird.” The quirky, jumpy star belts out in a half scream, half sing: “Papa-oom-mow-mow Papa-oom-a-mow-mow. Well don’t you know about the bird? Yeah, everybody knows that the bird is the word!” Schillinger, who names this song as reason for her word–bird kinship, has somehow caught the spirit of the tune in her book. Like the Trashmen’s hit, Wordbirds doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it stays with you for some time.
It becomes clear early on that the bird element is integral to the book’s charm. Curious and capricious Audubonesque illustrations by Zechel add just the right twist of irony, innocence, embarrassment, or awe to each page. A surprisingly natural pair, the birds soften the words in the way that Ernie tempered Bert, or Beauty tamed the Beast. In many cases, a bird peeks at the reader as if to say, “I told you so.”
Notably, Schillinger chooses not to use a phonetic alphabet for her pronunciation guide. Rather, she addresses the non-linguist who may be trying to adopt some of her additions. A word with a seemingly indecipherable pronunciation, like exhorticise, is easily explained with eg-‘zor-ti-syz. Moreover, sample usage for each addition is where much of the humor comes in: “After going on Atkins, losing two hundred pounds, and becoming an Ironman, Sebastian exhorticised his friends to become as healthy and athletic as he was.”
The reception these new words will receive as potential entries into standard dictionaries remains to be seen. While such inclusion might represent an institutional seal of approval, the words in Wordbirds profit precisely because of their non-official status. They enjoy heretical power as they skate across potentially sensitive political and social subjects, but they also underscore the myriad possibilities inherent in English.
As a columnist who writes about language, many of the letters I receive have come from readers alarmed at what they perceive as the degradation of our language. They lament popular mistakes like firstly and the misuse of literally. This tradition of protest can be traced back to Middle English, when those who pronounced haved as had were considered lazy. In the late 1950s, purists again scoffed at the idea of blending the words motor and hotel. These idealists have traditionally referred to “the book” (namely the dictionary) as the definitive word on language, but I don’t see Wordbirds posing a threat to this group. Rather, the book should be seen as a progressive venture, which peers beyond our current use of language without undermining the authority of traditional dictionaries.
Schillinger has streamlined our language, fast-tracked awkward situations, and refined the humor of word play. While every entry may not ring true for you, most are likely to make you chuckle when you contemplate the accompanying illustration. Personally, I took solace in the discovery that others are also guilty of quietly invading a Sephora store on the way to a party to use the makeup (and not buy it): Sephoraiding. Sadly, I have committed shoeicide, or destroyed my feet by deliberately wearing horribly painful shoes out of vanity. And what mother hasn’t humommiated (hyew-‘mom-me-ay-tud) her children by singing the wrong lyrics to songs in public? You will want to share these clever coinages with your friends, and many of these words may even make it into our expanding collective lexicon.
Bierce defined a lexicographer as “a pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility, and mechanize its methods.” Perhaps it is the passage of time or the emergence of Schillingeresque wordplay that makes this Devil’s Dictionary entry seem out-of-date. Instead of tightening the reins on language, Schillinger has done her best to advance, loosen, and even disarrange our glossary, proving that all traces of the “pestilent fellow” are, indeed, absent from this particular book.