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In the American presidential campaign, the candidates dished up some entertaining coinages. It started with made-up nouns like Obamacare (the Republicans’ moniker for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and more recently Romnesia (the president’s term for when his opponent changed previous positions and moves to the political center). But we have also seen novel uses of verbs as gerunds (outsourcing), adjectives (trickle-down government), and nouns (job-creators).
Word play, of course, isn’t restricted to political sloganeering. American literature has always had especially creative, even subversive, practitioners. Walt Whitman celebrated language that is, as he put it, “broad and low, close to the ground.” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in the dialect of the black South. Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Junot Díaz writes in streetwise Spanglish. Then there is Madison Avenue, which uses informal English in ads like “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya” and “Got milk?”
In researching my latest book on language and writing, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, I took myself on a journey through the 1500-year history of English, curious to see just how deep this capacity for invention runs in our linguistic veins. The answer? Very deep. And not just in British and American English.
The history behind our linguistic hodgepodge
Our mother tongue isn’t — and never has been — strait-laced. One of the most important aspects of our language is its richness, its legacy of change and innovation. English, after all, began as a makeshift, cobbled-together thing. Celts, Scots, Picts, Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans all invaded the British Isles at various times, adding to our vocabulary and shaping our syntax. In the last few centuries, words from the Americas, East Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa entered the lexicon (moccasin, yen, bungalow, Timbuktu).
English also finds ways of lengthening, shortening, blending and bending words. Chaucer used newfangled. Lewis Carroll coined chortle from chuckle and snort. Dr. Seuss gave us Sneetches, snobby creatures who live on beaches.
We’ve ended up with a language that offers us myriad choices. We can be unfailingly precise, but also poetic, and even funny. A sense of humor pervades many of the newest words entering English, via the technology industry. We have surprising verbs like google and tweet and defriend, but also brand names like iPad, and StumbleUpon.
The Indians and Jamaicans are at it too
This sense of word play is shared by our cousins around the world. Some English dialects spoken in the Republic of India are especially boisterous, with coinages like Bollywood (the Bombay-based movie industry) and Eve-teasing (sexual harassment). My favorites are words that grow out of the Indian habit 0f using echo words, such rumble-tumble (scrambled eggs) and partysharty (a fete where beer-sheer and chicken-whicken will be ingested).
(For more on Hindi words that have floated into standard English, as well as some of the charming eccentricities of Indian English, check out the book Hanklyn-Janklin by the late British ex-pat Nigel Hankin. He collected a whole volume’s worth and names the book as a tribute to its 1886 forebear, Hobson-Jobson.)
There are many examples of such playful Englishes in the West Indies, too. Jamaicans might speak Jamaican English, Jamaican Patois or the vernacular preferred by Rastafarians. British English, Scottish, Irish and West African languages have all had an influence on these. Sometimes it’s mostly the pronunciation that is different from Standard English; sometimes it’s the words themselves, whether duppy (ghost) or higgler for (informal vendor or hawker). Some of these words, like pikny or pickiney (child), were taken from an earlier form (piccaninny) that can be traced back to the Portuguese pequenino (the diminutive of pequeno, small) or Spanish pequeño (small). One of the most familiar Rastafarian words come from Hindi: ganja (marijuana).
Celebrate “bastard tongues”!
I love languages like this. Surely it’s no coincidence that I grew up speaking a tongue that, I’m told, sounds a lot like Jamaican Patois. In fact, my creole is known as Pidgin English in Hawaii, where I grew up. I spent my youth jumping back and forth between Standard English at the dinner table, which my parents insisted upon, and Pidgin English out on the beach, or in the sugar cane fields where I cavorted with friends. I love its subversive syllables, guttural sounds, and hodgepodge of words from Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and, yes, English.
Language is multifaceted. It includes the eloquence of the elite and the noise of the hoi polloi. It covers ragged dialects, immigrant patois and urban slang. It welcomes professional jargons, code words and coders’ words. It can be formal or colloquial, standard or non-, grammatically correct or regionally kinky.
No matter whether we speak American English or Indian-English, geekspeak or creole, we should celebrate our legacy of mutation and our capacity for musical phrasing. Rather than looking down on words that come to us from “bastard tongues” we should listen to them carefully and use them with joy. And we should also welcome new terms and comical fusions that come to us from distant shores, whether Big Kahuna, hasta la vista, baby or Hello Kitty.
Constance Hale, a San Francisco-based journalist, is the author of Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, which has just been released by W. W. Norton. Her previous books are Wired Style and Sin and Syntax.
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