The first time I heard "googol," the word for 1 followed by a hundred zeroes, it had a ripe, exotic, playful sound. Formerly, everything past a trillion was just a wicked big number. Googol gave juice to big. When my kids hear the word, they think "Internet search engine," of course. Search engine wasn't in my vocabulary growing up. The phrase World Wide Web, however, would have made my spider senses tingle.
So it goes in the universe of words. There's nothing inert about our language, as Allan Metcalf gleefully demonstrates in "Predicting New Words," his brisk, scholarly romp that will appeal beyond the usual word mavens.
"Googol" was coined in 1938 by Milton Sirotta, age 9. His mathematician uncle, Dr. Edward Kasner, asked him for a suitable name for the huge number. Out it popped, ringing with whimsy. "Googolplex" followed: the number 1 followed by googol zeroes. Such creativity can't be forced, though people have tried. There may indeed be "a class of people who earn their living by talk," but Paul Lewis's clever descriptor for them, "schmoozeoisie," hasn't gone platinum.
Neither does forced randomness yield words that stick. When the US Army fired up a computer with the American Military Operation Name Generating Device, out popped "Operation Overpriced Sucker Punch," among others. The generals should avoid accidental irony and stick to the euphemisms for which they're famous.
How are long-lived words spawned? "It's the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest," says Metcalf - unless you're a scientist seeking a name for your new element. Then, you're under the jurisdiction of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The vanity plates for element 104 and 106, rutherfordium and seaborgium, were awarded to Drs. Rutherford and Seaborg, the discoverers.
Biological naming since Linnaeus (1707-78) has standardized on the hierarchy of kingdom, phylum, etc. Nonetheless, it's more fun to call the fish an "alewife," "skipjack," or "herring" than Alosa pseudoharengus. Methinks we like our vocabulary borne on the tide of usage, not predetermination. An "alewife" by any other name does not smell as sweet.
Even Shakespeare wasn't the wordsmith to the extent thought. "Madcap," "marketable," "metamorphize" apparently predate him, though his usage fixed them in our lexicon. The Bard retains credit for some stars: "lackluster," "wild goose chase," "swagger" (verb), and "dwindle."
Cute words, marketing confections, and trendy neologisms ("cocooning," "OK-ness," "prosultant") aren't guaranteed a berth in the language, however effectively they conjure key concepts, fill linguistic gaps, or move the merchandise. I don't hear "tashivation" very often, though we could certainly use a term for "the art of answering without listening to questions." Orwellian usage lives - and sells soap, cars, and military operations - but his own gift to the language, "Newspeak," has languished.
Metcalf frequently cites the Internet as a nomenclature hotbed (or hothouse?), quickening the spread of new usage, and explains the sources of some new standards: "software," "bit," "bytes," "digerati." But "spam" repackaged remains unpalatable.
"Most newly coined words fail," says Metcalf. "They are tourists who do not become residents." It is this unpredictable commerce between experience and expression, an ever-changing need to somehow say it, extend ourselves, shed our verbal skin and vestigial tales, that is the womb of successful words. Metcalf writes, "You can hardly spend a day without coining a new word or two." We combine, shift meanings, shorten, blend, borrow, and even, rarely, think one up from scratch. It may even be a "subliminable" process, as George W. Bush would say.
Will we remember hanging chads in 40 years? "As with living creatures, the fittest often are not the biggest and flashiest, but rather those best able to camouflage themselves." As Eric Sevareid says, "One good word is worth a thousand pictures." However, le mot juste is hard to find - because the possibilities are googolplex.
• Todd R. Nelson is associate editor of Hope magazine.