Words: Old, New, and Nu

Welcome to the factstory, where facts are manufactured by high-flying factonauts — artificers of enhanced reality.

I just looked up factstory, factonaut, and artificer. They were all taken. I shouldn’t complain. Sometimes, a proofreader might question me, “Is that a word?” and I’d answer, “Yes, I just made it up,” then flash my poetic license.

Ralph Keyes, in The Hidden History of Coined Words, told of how, in 1973, Norman Mailer reported a factoid. Since factoids had never been reported before, Mailer graciously defined them: “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.”

Digressional kvetch: Maybe Mailer had more success with his new word because he was a famous novelist. It reminds me of when Mailer and the rowdy, black-and-blue-collar columnist Jimmy Breslin ran together as an odd-couple ticket in the 1969 NYC mayoral primary. During the campaign, Breslin complained, “Why is Mailer running for Mayor and me for president of the city council? Must be because Mailer went to Harvard.”

Not to gloat, but Mailer’s successful neologism was doomed to a short life. Factoid proved to be an unusually successful coinage, but along the way, it took on a meaning quite different from what its coiner had intended. Keyes pointed out that, rather than the concept Mailer meant, one that anticipated the era of “alternative facts, over time factoid came to refer simply to meager pieces of information.”

As Bryan Garner wrote in Garner’s Modern English Usage, “In the early 1980s [factoid] was appropriated by USA Today for the kind of easy-to-digest news element that is the hallmark of that paper and later media such as CNN Headline News.”

While Garner conceded that, by now, the later sense of factoid “is nearly universal and must be accepted as standard,” he observed, “Some people object to this sense because the -oid suffix generally denotes a resemblance to something but not the thing itself (e.g., a humanoid isn’t human; an asteroid isn’t a star).”

As we lurched around the turn of the century, careening from tinsel to tech, the original sense of factoids gave way to its pop sense of trivial newsbites — verbal junk food.

Mailer’s coinage was devalued.

Worse, as the media and the internet turned into mass facstories, we entered the post-truth era, and the two senses of factoid became indistinguishable. They morphed like the pigs and the farmers in Orwell’s Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Searching for word origins in old texts and with faded maps of overgrown word trails, Keyes found that, like “linguist Ben Zimmer, for the most part ‘etymologists haven’t the foggiest idea who first hatched a given coinage.’” Keyes started out writing a collection of coined words. But his quest for origins turned into an epic journey — part adventure, part detective story.

Keyes found, “In some cases, those who have come up with a usable new word didn’t even know they’d coined one, as when Isaac Asimov used robotics in a short story without realizing that this term was his own invention.”

He also found that many scholars looked down their noses at new words. Early references in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to neologisms, neology and neologist were all disdainful. “After scouring the OED for early uses of these words,” Keyes wrote, “linguist John Algeo determined that they ‘began life with a bad odor.’”

The single exception was the “1841 observation by British scholar Isaac D’Israeli (Benjamin Disraeli’s father) that ‘neologisms have fertilized the barrenness of our Saxon.’”

Some words were born of necessity. “None was greater than the need for a way to describe Nazi atrocities during World War II. How do you depict in words the magnitude of this carnage? Existing terms simply weren’t up to the task. ‘Mass murder’ didn’t have enough scope or weight to describe Hitler’s attempt to wipe Jews and others from the face of the earth.”

Keyes found that “in 1943, New York lawyer Raphael Lemkin — a Polish-Jewish refugee who lost 49 relatives to the Nazis — combined genos (Greek for tribe) with cide (Latin for killing) and came up with genocide. … Lemkin’s concept, amplified in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, figured prominently in the postwar prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.”

Keyes also discovered a surprising phenomenon: Many words enter the language, not through coinage, but through foreign exchange. He found a mother lode of words that came into English from Yiddish.

(“Mother lode” is fitting for a language known as “mamme-loshen.” But the translation “mother tongue” is bland and cold. The Yiddish expression evokes an atmosphere of savory chicken soup with strains of Yossele Rosenblatt singing “Mayn Yiddishe Mamme” in the background.)

As Keyes put it, “Yiddish provides a cornucopia of delicious words like chutzpah that have no real English equivalent. Others include klutz, kosher, kvetch, mentch, maven, nosh, nudge, schlock, schmooze, schlep, schlemiel, shtick, and zaftig.”

William Safire once cited a similar list of naturalized Yiddish words. Then he commented, “If you don’t know those words, you will have difficulty being understood in English.”

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