I recently saw a statistic that should have made me beam with pride: According to “Away with Words” by Joe Berkowitz, “English has by far the largest vocabulary in history, having surpassed a million words in 2009.”
That’s double the number of its nearest rival, German. But does that satisfy Anglophones? Nope – we just invent more.
For proof, consider the responses that poured in when Vancouver’s Iva Cheung tweeted this seemingly idle query a few months back: “What words, expressions, or pronunciations are unique to your familiolect? Quote-tweet with your favourites!”
Her tweet generated a whopping response. Then, within 24 hours, a BuzzFeed listicle cannibalizing her tweet would unleash hundreds more.
Cheung – an editor, designer, and champion of the “plain language” movement – told me she first encountered “familiolect” (some linguists prefer “familect”) while reading educational-psychology literature. Pressed to define the term, Cheung hazarded this: “A familiolect is any dialect peculiar to a family group, be it nuclear or extended.”
Cheung’s Twitter correspondents waxed nostalgic about the “clanguage” unique to their childhood homes, much of which seemed to revolve around the dinner table. Judging from the entries Cheung received, an entire continent was raised on a single dish: pasta with meat and cheese. Young tongues contorted “spaghetti” into “sketti,” “pasketti,” “basketti,” and even “poisonghetti.” In “kitchrooms” across the land, Parmesan cheese was invoked as “shaky cheese,” “sprinkle cheese,” and – my favorite – “spaghetti salt.” And sausages were verbally sliced and diced into “skosiges,” “snobbajubs,” “snausages,” and – in a recollection that seemed to disturb even its originator – “hostages.” (“God help anyone who hears us say ‘We’re having hostages for dinner,’ ” mused @LolGrainger.)
All good clean fun, to be sure. But what are we to make of the fact that the TV remote, of all things, sparked the most coinages by far? “Mote,” “motey,” “kermote”; “bodger,” “puncher,” “dinker-donker”; “meemo” and “dooda”; “the Force” and “the Frank” (as in Zappa); “clickety-boo” and “flicketty-do.” In Karen Compton’s den, the device is known as the “bygawd” (“because my husband’s family always says, ‘By gawd, where’s the remote?’ ”). And in Nita Poppins’s house it is nothing less than “the god-stick” (“because it has the power and control!”).
So, yes, the slang we sling at home makes easy grist for comedic mills. Yet it is also an heirloom to be treasured.
Allan Fallow, curator of #TodaysNeologism on Twitter, is filling in for Melissa Mohr, who is away on vacation until Oct. 8.