Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for January, 2009

Charlotte Russe’s Charlotte Russe

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Sorry to have been away so long. I have been hammering away on my first book since retiring and finally got it off last week. We are hoping to get it out in February, so keep an eye out on for “The 100 Funniest Words in English”.

I’m writing today because I received one of Joe Kozuh’s pleasantly teasing letters today, a response to our word ineluctable, which I exemplify with these two sentences:

  • An ineluctable attraction to the open road often overcomes Lisa Carr in the middle of faculty cocktail parties.
  • Charlotte Russe found herself fighting an ineluctable urge to cross the restaurant to the dessert cart and help herself rather than wait for the waitress.

Joe wrote: “While I can “Lisa Carr” or “lease a car,” I do NOT follow the double meaning of “Charlotte Russe” … ??? This dilemma is keeping me awake at Knight … ; is this some obscure food item known only in rural Pennsylvania … ???”

In responding I thought of an amusing anecdote that you might enjoy, too. Here is my response.

Chalotte Russe's Charlotte RusseOh, Joe, you have to try Charlotte Russe. It is Bavarian crème topped with fresh fruit surrounded by lady fingers. Which reminds me of a friend whose mother wanted to make a Charlotte Russe but had no lady fingers. She gave her 5-year-old son a dollar and asked him to go to the store and get some lady fingers. 20 minutes later he returned and said, “The butcher didn’t have any.” This happened long ago but try to imagine what went through this kid’s mind on the way to the store.

Nonce Words

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

One of the enjoyable pastimes in human experience that has exploded with the onset of Web communities is the creation of nonce words. A nonce word is a word that someone makes up for a specific occasion or situation without any hope that it will become part of the general or even specialized English vocabulary. A recent new word (neologism) added to Webster’s New World Dictionary is youthanasia, which is defined as “the focus on remaining youthful that possesses many Americans and Europeans”.

The web is flooded with nonce words: they are easy to create and amusing and surprising because they sound like real words but their meanings are often connotations (associations, implcations) rather than denotations (actual meanings).

“Connotations without denotations?” you might rightly ask. Yes, I think that is the correct characterization of these creations. Cyberchondriac, another new addition to the same dictionary, is supposed to be a person who thinks he is sick because his symptoms turn up on a Web page. It was created by replacing the hypo- in hypochondriac, with cyber-, which has become a synonym for “the Web”.

Now the real meaning of cyberchondriac should be “stomach governor”, for kybernan means “to govern” in Greek while chondria is a Latin word meaning “stomach”. Granted cyber- is an English combining form meaning “network, Web”, we could squeeze the meaning “Web-stomach person” out of cyberchondriac. These are the possible denotions (meanings) that may be derived from the meanings of the word’s components.

However, because the word was created to resemble hypochrondriac, the meaning of cyberchrondriac carries the connotation of that word, hence “a hypochondriac who surfs the web”. If this word has the meaning or denotation mentioned above, that meaning must be memorized and put to use by a large portion of the English-speaking community.

Occasionally a nonceword becomes a model for many other such words, so that one of its constitutuents becomes an active means of creating a word family. This has happened to cyber- Here is a mere handful of words created by inserting or replacing another stem with cyber-: cyberspace, cybersex, cyberspace, cybernaut, cyberphobia, cybersquatter, Cyberia, cybercop, cyberart, cybercafe, cybercash, cybercrime, cyberculture, cyberlaw.

Once this occurs, the component becomes an affix or, in this case, a “combining form”, similar to the myriad of combining forms from Latin and Greek, such as cardi(o)-, cerebr(o)-, -crat, and the like.

However, nothing in the short history of cyberchondria or youthanasia suggest that they are any more than passing jokes that have not yet earned their admission to any dictionary.