Complete with definitions, pronunciations, usage examples, and illustrations, That Should Be a Word features words on our obsession with food: carbiter—one who asserts that someone else cannot be hungry. On social media, like twiticule—to mock someone in 140 characters. On the modern family, like brattle—to discuss one’s children at great length, which leads to words like spamily—Facebook or Twitter updates about kids—and spawntourage—a group of approaching strollers.
From highlighting the profound financial anxiety of a post-recession society (bangst) to mocking the hyper-vain celebrity circle that abstains from anything of import (celebracy), That Should Be a Word delves deep into all the most humorous, and maddening, aspects of life in the 21st century.
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About the Author
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Lizzie Skurnick
"I have always believed," Lizzie Skurnick says, "not only in making up words but in making up significant metaphors for things that didn't exist." But when the New York Times Magazine came to her with a proposal to run a weekly column coining new words, Skurnick found her imagination stalking the twenty-first-century everyday, capturing a self- involved, technology-addled society with a lexicon that turns playful mashup into razor-edged satire.
Thus were born words we never knew we needed so badly, that map the contours of contemporary manners (denigreet), family (from prambivilance to procreadating to nipster), social media ( twiticule and sharanoia) and economics (evertime). Collected now in That Should Be a Word, Skurnick's inventions don't just amuse but deliver small shocks of sometimes unnerving recognition as they spill out from these pages: am I really such a dictaplanarian?
I spoke with Skurnick about poetry, comedy, parenting, technology, and the perils of being a professional "spellot." The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. - Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of That Should Be a Word. Did this come out of creative ferment, or a sense of constant frustration when you discovered there wasn't a precise term?
Lizzie Skurnick: Well, the technical part of how it came about is because the New York Times brought up the idea for this column, and Maud Newton recommended me. But in real life, I have always believed in not only making up words, but making up significant metaphors for things that didn't exist. I was a poet, and I wrote my first book report, in second grade, in metered verse. I've always rhymed everything. So I think that is actually partly what came about. I remember, when I used to write down my poems really quickly, I would always write down a word and then not be able to later read whatever the hell that word was that I scribbled down so quickly, but then have a better word that rhymes better. So speaking rhythmically and then rhyme is something I do naturally, and as it happens, that has just translated into doing these words.
BNR: I am now wondering if your career as a poet wouldn't have been a lot easier if you had developed an entire book of words that you'd made up yourself? You could just develop words for villanelles, for example, that you need to kind of fill out demanding rhyme schemes.
LS: I basically think of my words as short poems because they all have many, many words layered in them, and many meanings layered in them, just like a poem. And they do evoke emotions. I feel like if you want to take them seriously, you can argue with their points of view but no one takes them seriously, which is totally fine.
BNR: Some of your words are a version of the classic portmanteau, right?
BNR: You take two existing words, squishing them together (sometimes you don't even have to squish them that hard) to produce a modification of one or the other that gives you something new. I think my favorite of these, because it's instantly so usable, is "doubtrage."
LS: [Laughs] I like that. That is a good portmanteau. Although even my portmanteaux are words that layer over each other. In a really classic example, you string on one another and the word is twice as long.
BNR: Right. There's no overlap.
LS: Yeah, there's no overlap. My words, weirdly, always overlap. It's strange. I don't dislike portmanteaus, and people often suggest them to me, and my response is often, "But isn't that just smashing the two together?"
BNR: You want to smash hard enough to create a gooey center.
LS: Exactly. I want you to hear three words at once the two words and the new word, and the new word can't just mimic the other ones.
BNR: Do you have favorites? Do you have your top five or your top three that you're proudest of or you feel you actually use in your daily life?
LS: Well, the one coming to mind is I think it's just the one that other people really like, but I like it, too, which is "dramaneering," just because we all know dramaneering people.
BNR: So those are people who use drama to overwhelm others.
LS: Yes. They use histrionics to get their way, basically. I like that word. I also love my first word, only because it did itself without my thinking too hard about it, which was "smearch." That really was the first word I did, the first word I thought of. It took me a long time. I usually think. . . . I actually always think of the definition before I think of the word, and then I let my brain sort of percolate on what the word is going to be. So my brain is just sort of naturally going through a million internet-related words, and then, you know, "smearch" just comes out.
BNR: Spell that one.
LS: S-M-E-A-R-C-H. It's when you search someone on the Internet looking for bad news. What I liked about it is that it had. . . . I didn't even notice it, but my friend's husband pointed out that it also has "smear" in it, like smear someone. I feel like my best words always have some word I didn't even notice.
BNR: That one needs, I think, to be seen on the page to have full impact - to see the visual crossover between "search" and "smear." Were you also thinking of "besmirch"?
LS: Yes. Well, I wasn't thinking of anything. It's like I thought of both words, and then all of a sudden. . . . They do kind of appear the way a line appears. My brain cells are going through some kind of little Rolodex, and then they find the right thing, and then they stop.
I also like "brattle" a lot, which is to talk too much about your children.
BNR: Children and parenting provide a lot of these!
LS: I know. Because you know I was trying to get pregnant, and then I was pregnant, and then I was raising a child. So . . .
BNR: I just thought it indicated that modern parents have developed a set of really annoying traits. I say this as one of them.
LS: Well, the thing is, I brattle all the time now. But it's interesting what you've said, though, because I don't know whether it's a failing or a strength, but with my work, hearing it is the important thing. Classic portmanteau works in your ear take "mansplaining" or "manspreading." It's an aural, not a visual thing.
BNR: I'm glad you brought those up, because especially "mansplain" really took off this last year. LS: Here's the thing with "mansplaining" and with all of those words. I love it. I use "mansplaining." I think it hits on a very important thing that men do. However, I think as of wordplay, it's not good at all. Luckily, it's not trying to be wordplay at all. It exists because there is a really-really-really huge need for it. Also, "mansplain" is very fun to say.
I was thinking the other night also about a word like "smoothie." "Smoothie" is a word that took off. It's the greatest word ever! I mean, love to say it, and you immediately think of the thing. But, like, why "smoothie"? Like, if we were all eating in a room, and let's say you offered me a "smoothie" before we all say "smoothie," I might say not want it.
It's really hard to tell what word will seem right for things. Often, the words that seem most right for things that really take off in culture are not even necessarily great or pleasurable words, but are just new words that we need, which is sort of a different thing. My words are fun to read, for sure, and they are fun for me to make. But I think because I am a reader and a writer, some of them are fun to say, but not as much as if you read them because you don't get every joke when you say them. "Brattle" has multiple words in it, which you won't hear if it's just dropped into a conversation.
BNR: I think it's different for different words. It's interesting, because one of the categories that you have are words that are a bit satirical in intent - they have a raised eyebrow.
BNR: And you have some that are particularly feminist in their focus: "Menopoly."
BNR: It's interesting, because I thought of "herstory," which was suggested as a politically charged opposite to "history" in the 1970s. But "menopoly" seemed instantly kind of understandable as a description of a social situation. So I do think you have words that don't just work visually on the page, but actually kind of grab some of that same territory as "mansplaining."
LS: Sometimes when people ask me for words on Twitter (and a lot of people often ask me for words on Twitter), and the results come in a written form, they have a few layers of meaning baked into them. But when people ask me for a word in person, the word does come out, you know, is more related to the sound of it.
The thing about finding it is that, it's not something you can do well if you think about every step. No one ever gets a good result from the dictionary. It's sort of something the brain does because it's fun.
BNR: I have a few favorites, and many are those words that we not only didn't know we needed, that we needed them, but they are also very elegant ways of describing sort of the way we live now.
LS: Right. [Laughs] Talk about a title! The greatest title ever.
BNR: Some of the ones that work best are the ones that really wrap themselves around our modern world of business and technology and stress all together "evertime" is my favorite word from this book.
LS: Oh, I'm so glad you like that.
BNR: What it means, of course, is our always-on state of responsibility to our jobs, that we are connected to work by email and cell phone, and your boss is texting you. I think this is such an urgent concept for us to be able to put an eight-letter word around so that you can define . . . so that one could say, "Does this job involve evertime?"
LS: Although it's a funny thing about "evertime," though, which is that, like, when you study it, and maybe it's . . . When you think it sounds so elegant, it sounds so pretty . . . in a way, the word for "evertime" should be something horrible. It should sound gloomful It should have some really, really bad sound.
BNR: More like "grumption" or "doubtrage," where you know that it's something terrible.
LS: Exactly. But I'm glad you love that.
BNR: The best aspect of it is that it sort of sneaks up on you. Then you realize it contains a broken promise in it, that you have all the time in the world to do all the things that you need to do, thanks to maybe technology. But of course, what it really means is that you are forever on overtime and you're not even getting paid overtime.
LS: I know.
BNR: Another great one is "povertunity." The job opportunity which you, for one reason or another, have to take or feel that you are obligated to take, but which is going to radically underpay you.
LS: With that one I wondered if it were already in circulation. And when Googled it, it did exist, but not as a play on words. It's a real organization that tries to get people who are poor an opportunity. And I thought "Oh my God, that's terrible." Because it was a word I really loved. Luckily, it never happens that a word I really loved was in Urban Dictionary.
That's something I am careful about. People constantly send me "hangry" combining "hungry" and "angry." Constantly. Which is also well established in sources like Urban Dictionary. I'm like, "Yeah-yeah-yeah, that's great." But it's not the sort of thing I'm trying to do.
The one word I did get called out for, which I didn't care about, was "gastronaut," which is a word that is a sort of natural word to say, and has been used in the Times even before for other things.
BNR: How is it different than "gastronome"?
LS: The idea is that the diet is really out there. I meant a diet that's exploratory, and I liked it, because the way I was using it, it had that layer of meaning including "gas," which was a big part of my sense of what was funny about the word. So someone wrote me, saying that they had an organization that used this word, and suggested another word for this. Then I just really wrote back very nicely and said, "I'm using it, because in my case it contains all of these words that I'm sure you didn't intend. But too bad, because now it's funny, because your word has gas.
BNR: Are there words you used just because you liked the way they sound? For example, I would naturally want to find ways to combine a funny word like "pants" with some other things. Did you have sounds or syllables or words, partial words, about which you thought "I've just got to find something to do with this; it's just too sonically pleasing."
LS: I have a word for you with "pants," actually, right now, if you want it.
LS: It's "pantscillary," and it means some event that you really didn't need to wear pants for.
BNR: There you go. And the fact that includes a visual of someone choosing to go pantless I think that's part of why "pants" is so funny, because you always imagine kind of absurd underwear.
LS: Well, there's also just "pantsy," of course, which is not being able to stand the feeling of your jeans and wanting to take them off. Like, we all get pantsy at the end of the day. Or at least women do. I don't know if men . . .
BNR: I think it's probably a universal phenomenon.
LS: I don't knw that it was hard for me to do, but I know that I was constantly ending words with "ate," and I really-really-really had to work hard to not make every single word end in "ate."
BNR: Why do suppose that is. Because it was kind of an extension of "hate" or . . . ?
LS: I think it's actually the "gate" thing. The famous Watergate. That's a very strong ending for a word, and it's something we actually have in a lot of our words. I didn't make a huge study of it, but there've been endless casual recyclings of that one ending and a lot of words do have a nice, additional meaning from "ate."
BNR: One other category, by the way, that I noticed seems very ripe for this kind of treatment is etiquette and manners "denigreet," for example.
LS: It means to greet someone in a special way that you seem like you're being friendly, but you're actually putting them down. That was actually written for a friend someone kept doing this to her, and I would often be with the friend when the person would do this.
BNR: In your book you say "pretend never to have met."
LS: It's like if I saw you and every time I saw you I called you "Bob," the implication would be that you weren't important enough for me to remember that your name is Bill, and then also that people really do this deliberately all the time, just to be annoying, just to give that impression. And it's also something that makes the other person feel bad. If you're "denigreeted," you never feel good. You always really feel very put down.
BNR: Is there a word here about which you'd say, "This is a word that I want to see enter the lexicon; I want to see this become a kind of a standard expression that everybody uses." Or do you love all your babies equally?
LS: I do love all my babies equally. But I think the word most likely to do this, and also a word I really, really like (even though I thought it was really obvious, I couldn't believe that it wasn't already used) was "fidgital."
BNR: Meaning precisely?
LS: To not be able to let go of one's device. To constantly be touching one's device, whatever that device is. Or to be constantly checking one's device. That is something that simply never happened before. I walk around every single day (and you do, too, and we all do), and everybody either has their earphones on or is stroking a screen.
BNR: That, I think, seems very precise.
LS: I think that is probably my favorite word in terms of being a word that really, really did need to be coined. I was amazed that word had not been coined before.
BNR: Let's hope, then, that word goes out into the universe and gives us all a means to check ourselves and stop stroking our screens.
LS: Well, but see, that's the problem. "Check ourselves" also means check ourselves. So really we're already checking.
April 8, 2015