“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”  –Albus Dumbledore

As a former English teacher and writer (as far as you know,) I have a strong relationship with words.  In fact, it goes beyond that, I am fascinated by them.  I am definitely a “word nerd.”

Some words just make me feel better, like the words comfort, Mahna (Mahna, etc.), puppy, awesome, frickin’, quandary, piano, tilapia, pinochle, and Lapland.

Some do the opposite, like deny, flippant, chalupa, downsize, and miasma.

The thing is, until we develop telepathy, words are our main method of conveying ideas between ourselves and the rest of the folks on the planet.  So we might as well enjoy them and use them in ways that we enjoy (or that are funny, or maybe that unleash our inner Charles Nelson Reilly.)  As someone who knows a lot of writers and poets, and who also has no choice but to speak and write as I do, I love any celebration of the efforts to expand the language.  Ever since a certain inflection of grunt or cry of alarm meant something specific rather than just “rrrr” or “skree,” we have the ability to play with words to make them more fun, or funnier, or more informative, or shorter, or sillier.

For example, the portmanteau.  This is when two words are mushed together as if we don’t have the time to get through both words every time, or when we want to express a combination that is possible, rather than an actual word as of yet.   Like when eating between the normal times for either breakfast and lunch, we have brunch.  Also, spiced and ham, which makes SPAM.  Or Portmanteau itself is a portmanteau—originally, it was a French (and later English) word for a suitcase that opens into two equal parts. The word comes from porter (to carry) and manteau (a coat). One might expect the French word for portmanteau—the blend, not the luggage—to be portmanteau, since it’s already a perfectly good French word, but one would be wrong. Instead, it’s mot-valise, which loosely means word-suitcase. I love that fact, as I love some other words and concepts of how to use words.  But word-suitcase has to be one of the very best.

Another fun language evolution that happens is called metathesis. It is the transposition of sounds in common words, like then children ask for pasketti instead of spaghetti. While we think of these as mistakes, this has often been known to become, with long usage, the standard over time.  For example, bird comes from the Old English bryd. One example in English is the word ask, which is pronounced aks (ax) in some English dialects. The weird thing is that the ax pronunciation used to be common in the history of English. Chaucer, for instance, used ax. Many speakers of English used ax instead of ask when this metathesis occurred sometime in the 14th century.

Language is always evolving through changes in the words commonly used, which is generally a marker of generational change.  Sometimes because of error, sometimes because of intentional other language elision or mispronunciation, or new coding done on purpose to create distance.  Like today’s youth may say “Imma,” rather than “I am going to,” or “I’m not tryna do” instead of “I don’t want to,” or any number of other words like “thick,” “thirsty,” and “vibing,” meant to connote a difference between the current generation and the codgers who preceded them, who used words like “rad”, and “gnarly,” “bodacious,” “foxy,” and “copacetic.”  And the thing that each generation doesn’t usually think about is that each previous generation also had their own words that they used to the same purpose.

Then there are the ways to play with the English language that come from other tongues that have melted into common usage.  One of my favorites is something you probably do, but you just didn’t know there was a name for it. If you did know the name, you’re an even bigger language nerd than I.  I am talking about when someone says something like “Word Nerd, shmerd Nerd!” The name for that is “schm-reduplication.”  Generally, it is used to indicate that you’re being ironic and/or sarcastic.  It is actually a subset of a broader linguistic category, reduplication, which is the morphological process where part of a word is repeated either exactly or nearly exactly, like hokey pokey and razzle dazzle.  When it is specifically shm-reduplication, it has Yiddish roots and exists in modern Hebrew as well as English.  But it is especially useful when one needs to completely dismiss something, or emphasize that you heard what someone said, but you wish to emphasize it ironically.  Like “Ironically, schmironically, I just like the sound of it because it makes me sound like a 1930s radio comedian.”

The fascination with language is what makes writing and speaking interesting and fun, and I think that if you really ponder it, you will find that you have your own favorite words and ways to use them.

Tony Moir is a cyborg who holds world records in synchronized luge and panda steeplechase. Or maybe he isn’t. But he lives in San Francisco with his lovely wife and three outstanding sons.

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