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The Word

Collect them all

The joy of pogothletics and other new words

By Erin McKean
August 7, 2011

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Papabile. Biophilia. Do-ocracy. Moffle. If you don’t recognize any of these, don’t worry - they’re not (yet) household words. Papabile is used to refer to those cardinals who are considered good candidates for popehood. Biophilia - a word coined by biologist E.O. Wilson - is the idea that we have a deep human need to connect with nature. A do-ocracy is an organizational structure in which people choose what to do, and then do it. And a moffle? It’s a waffle-shaped mochi (Japanese rice paste) cake.

The very nonhouseholdness of these words is what caught my eye and made them worth collecting - these and more than a hundred other words from my stash have just been published in a new e-book. But I’m not alone in collecting words. Every dictionary editor keeps a list like this - slang lexicographers, in particular, have to keep their eyes and ears open. And everyone has different criteria for what makes a word “collectible.”

I’m drawn especially to words from science and technology, notably those on the verge of the possible. There’s BAN, for instance, an acronym meaning “body-area network,” which is a network of sensors worn on the body to collect data. And brainjacking, the scanning of our brainwaves - and the possible manipulation of them! - to understand and create desires. Sometimes the words are so technologically advanced as to be opaque: An instanton carries information about quantum tunneling. Any questions?

Also highly collectible (in my opinion) are words that show suffixing ingenuity, such as bustaurant, “a restaurant built in a converted vehicle, usually a bus,” and the ugly-but-interesting newpreneur, someone who starts a new business in the recession. My favorite in this category is mansplaining, the act of (a man) explaining something in a condescending manner, especially to someone (a woman) who understands what’s being explained better than he does.

Some words are just too silly to pass up, such as the cherpumple, a three-layer cake with an entire pie baked into each layer. (Usually a cherpumple has a cherry pie inside a white cake, a pumpkin pie inside a yellow cake, and an apple pie inside a spice cake.) There’s also the mockbuster, a hastily made, straight-to-DVD film designed to confuse video store customers: “Snakes on a Train” instead of “Snakes on a Plane.”

Once you start collecting, it’s easy to let your enthusiasm run away with you. Last week, I tweeted the word pogothletics, and glossed it (without much evidence, honestly) as “the sport of pogo-sticking,” based on a one-off citation (“But if it has been a year or twenty since you did the hoppity-hop, be prepared for some astounding advances in pogothletics”), from the website of an NBC-TV affiliate in Los Angeles. And as with any collecting hobby, there’s always someone questioning the value of your treasures. After my tweet, I got a reply from someone asking if pogothletics is a “real word.”

The question isn’t really whether pogothletics is a word (as opposed to a musical instrument, a vehicle, or a dessert topping). Of course pogothletics is a word. (It tastes terrible over ice cream.) The question is whether pogothletics is a word that most people should be expected to know, or that is in widespread use in English, or that people should feel comfortable using in any context - and the answer to all those questions is “no.”

But does that make these words worthless? Even a one-off (“nonce”) word like pogothletics is useful. For one, it’s an interesting example of -thletics (clipped from athletics) as a suffix, and there aren’t that many. (Mathletics is the best-known, and that benefits from the overlap between the -ath of math and the beginning of athletics.)

Also, each new coinage carves out a little mental space in the language - and recording them means they’re accessible to more than just those who stumbled on the original sentence. If pogo-stick-jumping competitions become widespread, well, we have pogothletics waiting and ready. But if another, better term comes along (maybe pogolympics, currently used as the name of a German punk/ska band?) we can discard pogothletics without a backward glance.

It’s not unusual for jargony or nonce-words to get a second wind: Take the word sinter, a technical term meaning “to compact and heat a powder to form a solid mass.” The Oxford English Dictionary has citations from the early 1900s, but advances in technology have recently put sintering in the news. Researchers in the United Kingdom have used a 3-D printer (involving lasers, as all the best science does) to “print” parts for an unmanned aerial vehicle: In short, they sintered an airplane. (The best-known example of obscure technical jargon resurfacing happened during the 2000 elections, when the word chad - “small pieces of paper punched out from the edges of continuous stationery, punched cards, paper tape etc.” - suddenly rose to prominence.)

The best thing about a word collection is that it takes virtually no space (especially in the age of near infinite and amazingly cheap data storage), never needs dusting, and can be augmented from the comfort of a plush armchair. Even better, a word in my collection can easily be part of yours as well.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. She recently published the e-book “Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words From a Lexicographer’s Notebook.” Feel free to share your favorite new words with her at erin@wordnik.com or via Twitter @emckean.