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The invention of language

Hungerful and dee-do: the invention of language

As a publicist, I spend a lot of time writing: pitch letters, press releases, emails, they take up the large part of my day. Then on rare occasions, when I unchain myself from my desk and get out into the world to have live conversations with people, it can feel like all sense of spoken language has escaped me and some of the strangest words come out of my mouth. They may sound like words but frankly they are not.

One of the most famous, in recent memory, of these made-up words, is 2010’s New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year: ‘refudiate’ – made famous by the infamous Sarah Palin but not coined by her. The uproar surrounding the choice was amazing and so interesting. The general consensus was that Palin’s ignorance should not be rewarded with a nod from Oxford. But who of us hasn’t done this exact type of thing before? And, more importantly, she was not the first person to use refudiate.

Out of the mouths of babes

On a less political note, my three-year-old daughter, Genna, is absolutely bursting with language. She doesn’t know any of the rules for how words are formed quite yet so some of the funniest and innovative ‘words’ are making it into our everyday language. One of my favorites is ‘hungerful’. Hungerful goes beyond just plain hungry (which is a word she knows). In my daughter’s mind, hungerful is just that, when her small body is completely consumed by hunger, chock-full of it! One of her first invented words was really a pronunciation issue: ‘dee-doo’. Dee-doo was her way of saying ‘thank you’ and it was so cute and fun to say that it stuck and now my whole family can be heard giving a brisk dee-doo in place of a thank you.

I like to encourage her exploration of language and we’re often found singing made-up songs on any given weekend or making up rhymes on car rides. The fun of rhyming with a three-year-old is that it doesn’t matter if what she says is a word, so long as it rhymes:

Genna: Rhyme time, I wanna rhyme.
Sarah: It’s my turn, let’s find a fern.
Genna: Where is that fern, tear tern.
Sarah: Let’s learn a new word.
Genna: Tell me a word, have you heard.
Sarah: Isn’t that superb?
Genna: What a word!

A word is a word is a word …

Exploring language through the eyes of a three-year-old is amazing. To be able to watch the process from the very beginning with those first sounds of mama and dada with no meaning attached to them, to the recognition that things have names and then that sentences can be built is like watching a miracle in progress. It has given me a new perspective on the life that lives within our language and the realization that our language isn’t static, but is constantly changing.

One of my former colleagues at OUP once said (and I paraphrase here) that there are no right or wrong words. Once a word (like refudiate for instance) starts to be used and becomes part of the vernacular, it also becomes a candidate for inclusion in a dictionary, provided it is used enough. That language is a living breathing thing, constantly growing and changing, is something I am thankful for.  Some days I find myself grasping for a word to explain myself or a new book I’m working on, and what pours out of my mouth seems nothing remotely like a word I know… but one day it could be!

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