Tuesday, May 7

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 07, 2013 1 comment
"Make it new" declared Ezra Pound (1885-1972), a statement that became a rallying cry to the generation of early 20th century writers  we now call the Modernists. Nearly 100 years later, we still love a few of their favorite poetics tools to make writing fresh and zingy: neologism and portmanteau.

Don't be alarmed by the highfalutin' names. These two techniques are about breaking the rules. When you can't find the perfect word, you make one up. What could be more fun than that?

Neologism, from the Greek roots neo/new and logos/word, means an invented word. Lewis Carroll popularized the practice with his poem "Jabberwocky" in which he coined a number of terms, from galumphing to slithy. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake contains hundreds, including nebuless,  goddinpotty,bisaacles.

Neologisms can be especially helpful for conveying the thoughts of someone a bit different from the average thinker. In Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon, Charlie's intelligence level is shown to be lacking through his use of not-quite-right terms including rilax, compushishens, telld. It's considerably more effective than simply telling us through a third-person narrator that Charlie has mental retardation.

I'm a fan of using neologisms for sound effect purposes--onomatopoeic neologism, for those of you who like fancy terminology. In my novel Never Gone, footsteps across icy snow "sloosh nearer." Later in the scene, simple, unadorned sound heightens the spookiness of the moment: "Chush. Chush. Chush."  

photo by mzacha, morguefile.com
Portmanteau, or pieced-together words, gets its name from a piece of luggage with two sides that's hinged in the middle. Lewis Carroll was the coiner of this use of the word.

Shakespeare was the king of portmanteau, inventing new words such as madcap and lackluster. Loads of writers since then have been coining these "siamixed" kinds of words (to steal from Joyce): Sylvia Plath gave us "a Meinkampf look" (making an adjective of Hitler's book Mein Kampf); George Orwell gave us "newspeak."

Portmanteau is probably the very best tool for naming some future technology so that it will still be understandable to contemporary readers. In Dune, Frank Herbert called his flying machines "ornithopters," combining the Greek words for bird and wing, giving readers a picture of  how the machines might look in flight.

Our culture has really run with this poetic tool, coining new terms at an unprecedented rate. We are all quick to take up terms like "Frankenfood," "netiquitte," "frappuccino" because they are readily understood and define well the qualities of some new phenomenon.

Portmanteau can also be wonderfully playful, a great way to pump up character voice. You get a very strong sense of someone who finds the new guy "adorkable" or who becomes "aggrannoyed" about the long line at the supermarket.

Your turn:
How might you incorporate some coined terms to jazz up your writing?


  1. I think in fantasy, dystopian, and sci-fi stories, there's more of a need to make up words. But you have to be careful not to make up too many.