Inapt Neologisms

Recently I’ve been mulling over neologisms that aren’t bad conceptually, but are so clunky and inelegant that I stop paying attention to ideas and start gaping at how ugly the words are.

[insert examples]

I think there’s more in play here than simply a tin ear. Instead, I’ve noticed some common factors:

  • The words are presented as coming from outside of (or, more likely, above) a common context.
  • I think the hope (or pretense) is that this means the words’ very newness and distance from ordinary usage embody a critical perspective, that they don’t simply replicate existing linguistic conventions.
  • But there’s also a fundamental mistrust, I think, of language. An attempt to choose something so inapt that it is resistant to being appropriated, and its meaning will be more stable because the word doesn’t play well with others.
  • There’s something ungenerous (and doomed) about this.
  • There is also a mistrust of people, of ordinary people’s capacity to invent useful terms.
  • If so, this is just the opposite of what Eve Sedgwick describes when she writes about “nonce taxonomies” and terms like “fag hag.” In her account, a theorist’s job is not primarily to dismiss or correct such terms that people coin to make sense of their day to day experience. Instead, a theorist’s job is to take those terms seriously, to think long and hard about what they mean, and to extract new resonances. So the critical distance is built from the ground up, so to speak: it emerges from ordinary practices of language, practices that are themselves creative (not simply replicating existing power structures).

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