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The word

The birth of notions

What did we do before ’cyber’?

By Erin McKean
May 16, 2010

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”Imagine a world without x” is a familiar standby of science fiction novels and movies. Imagine a world where Europeans never came to North America, or where nobody ever invented an airplane, and the whole story flows from there. It’s such a familiar trope that an alternate-universe ”world without shrimp” was a mere throwaway joke on the television show ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Sol Steinmetz, a lexicographer with more than 35 dictionaries and reference books to his name, is not a science fiction writer, but his new book, ”There’s A Word For It,” could fuel hundreds of alternate histories. In ”There’s A Word For It,” Steinmetz has collected and sorted words of American English into batches by their year of birth. The result is almost a pointillist history of the United States, spotlighting our artistic, cultural, scientific, and technical achievements, era by era and neologism by neologism. (A similar arrangement was used in the wonderful ”America In So Many Words,” by Allan Metcalf and David Barnhart, although they reached back all the way to 1750, and focused on words America shared with the world.)

Arranging words in this way makes us stop and think about the what-ifs--and makes you realize that until a certain moment, we really were living in a ”world without x.” How could you have described a certain kind of overly verbal, good-hearted, just-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law character before the arrival of Runyonesque, first recorded in 1938? It’s disconcerting to realize that until the same year, people were also living without cheeseburger, expressway, nylon, photojournalism, senile, thermonuclear, and mud-wrestling.

”There’s a Word For It” has to be read with the usual caveats that apply to any set of assertions about the language. The years given in ”There’s A Word For It” are usually those of the word’s first appearance in print, which is a notoriously unreliable guide to the actual birth of a word. (Think of it as the equivalent of counting as your birthday the day you enrolled in first grade.) Can we really believe that it took until 1939--14 years after the invention of the zipper, and seven years after the Oxford English Dictionary attests the verb zip--for people to come up with unzip? How did we get out of our clothes before then? It seems much more likely that it took that long for conservative editors to stop red-penciling it--and a quick search of Google Books seems to show at least one possible use of unzip in the sense of ”undo” before 1935.

A few terms, curiously, seem to have emerged before the phenomenon they describe was fully formed--including punk rock, whose 1970 birth predates the mid-’70s arrival of the music most people now call punk rock. (Initially, it meant loud and aggressive rock music.) Kakotopia was first coined in 1911, but came to be used in the sense of ”an unplanned or ugly urban place” in 1970.

And in addition to ”before they were stars” peeks at words that eventually took off, there are plenty of words that still haven’t had their moment in the spotlight--obscure coinages to describe things you didn’t know there were words for. There’s smaze (1953), a mixture of smoke and haze, coming nearly 50 years after the more-successful smog, which originated in London; rurp (1968), a type of very small climbing piton; pedalo (1941), a small pedal-operated recreational paddle boat; and menticide (1951), the practice of breaking a person’s will, considered as a stereotypical behavior of totalitarian governments.

Books like these, which highlight the moments where a ”world without” shifts to a ”world with,” give rise to a whole set of metalinguistic (1941) questions. When exactly does a new thing necessitate a new word? Are the concrete and the abstract, the noun and the verb, all on different timetables? Perhaps one day we’ll be able to track the emergence of new words right down to the day and hour, marking exactly when an inchoate and fuzzy idea solidifies behind a definite term--and maybe even measure the brain activity of word coiners in the act, to see what happens at the moment of neologizing.

When that word arrives, it can be far more than a label. Sometimes it seems to open up a whole conceptual landscape. Cybernetics (1948) originally described the study of communication systems in living beings as well as machines, but over time, at least in popular culture, it seems to have pushed people into thinking about and analyzing living beings as if they were machines, and then to contemplating machines that are living beings. The cyber- of cybernetics (which comes from a Greek word meaning steersman) has spawned a glut of words only distantly related to the original ”science of communication” idea, including cyberspace (1982), cybersex (1991), and cyberpet (1993). Would we have developed this idea of a communicative realm of near-living machines without the word cybernetics? Almost certainly. But the right word gives us all a way to get our heads around it.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.