(Mis)conceptions: The Almost and the Art

Do you remember a time when, as a child, instead of running for a dictionary, you were content to decide for yourself what new words meant? Or more likely, the tendency began long before you could read. I remember deciding once that the strange new word “nevertheless” meant “We’ll see about that.” I thought that must be the case, since the people who said “nevertheless” were usually villains — evil sorceress stepmother queens and the like — who were bent on mocking and spiting the main character who seemed for the moment to be getting the upper hand.

Another example: in My Fair Lady, Eliza sings “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.” For a long time (and I was very little), I believed she was singing, “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the Lon Ponzair.” In my mind, the Lon Ponzair was a shadowy prince who dressed in black robes, carried a scimitar, and rode a dark horse through desert places. Naturally Eliza — or any sensible girl — would want to be far away from him!

Same song: she sings “Lots of chocolates for me to eat; lots of coal making lots of heat.” Because of her cockney accent, I thought the words were: “Lots of chocolates for me to eat; lots of cows making lots of meat.” (Well, I grew up in a farming community. . . .)

One of the stories I wrote when I was about ten involved a guy driving a Jeep. I thought the word “neutral” as it related to gear shifts meant “neither slow nor fast” — not taking sides, you know, like Switzerland — so I wrote this sentence:

“The engine purred into neutral, and the Jeep sped off at half speed.”

For decades afterward, to the end of his life, my dad would sometimes gleefully call out, “The engine purred into neutral!”

As a toddler, apparently I would spontaneously make up songs and sing them around the house. My mom would write them down, and three of them are preserved for posterity (don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to all three — just the one that’s pertinent). Here’s one (it’s short):

“Hee hee hee went the blue little thing;

Ho ho ho went the orders;

And so that’s the way it glees.”

Yes, that’s the whole song. What’s interesting to me now about that is that I was using language almost completely for the sound and the pleasure of the words, the way they felt, not for the meaning. We could invent all sorts of meanings for the text, but I doubt there was much of one, even in my child’s mind. I suspect that the words simply felt good. It’s a happy song. Everyone’s laughing — the fantasy creature, even the authority figure; and the last line seems to express general optimism and contentment. (I remember my dad commenting that orders don’t usually go “Ho ho ho.” He had a good point. As with the engine purring into neutral, he would also sometimes shrug and say, “That’s the way it glees.” Later in life, he would mix it with Robert Burns and say, “That’s the gang it glees.”)

In a poem once I used the word “fernwise,” which isn’t in any dictionary:

“. . . Traveling fernwise the whispering hedge,

Finding dream paths at the shadow’s edge.”

I used the word to have at least a threefold meaning: in the direction of ferns (as in “clockwise”); in the way or manner of ferns; and with an awareness or knowledge of ferns. A Japanese colleague asked me, “Can you do that?”

Well, I’m in excellent company. Shakespeare made up a great many of the words he used. They cannot be found in any earlier texts, and many of them are now in our dictionaries.

We have a beautifully rich vocabulary to draw upon. By all means, let’s plumb its depths, get to know it, and use it all we can. We’d all be surprised at the words we have at our disposal. But at the same time, let’s not be afraid to use what we know to extrapolate — to fill in the holes — to create the words that should be there but aren’t yet. Fantasy writers do it all the time, much to the consternation of our electronic spell-checkers.

Is “hobbit” a word? Well, now it is — just check out the Oxford English Dictionary. I know people who freely use the word flayrah.

If anyone’s inclined to comment, this would be an excellent time to tell us your stories about your misconceptions and creative uses of the language when you were a kid — or older, if you’re brave enough. Or do you know of or use any words which aren’t yet generally acknowledged? Tell us, tell us!

So have fun with English, multidimensional creature that it is. Enjoy it in all its richness, and you don’t have to stay inside the lines when you color.

But it probably is safer to stay far away from the Lon Ponzair.

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11 Responses to “(Mis)conceptions: The Almost and the Art”

  1. Chris Says:

    I believe that is precisely why the German language was invented. My favorite from german class was:

    Atomzeitalterfrau!

    (Woman of the Atomic Age)

    Which I then altered slightly in an attempt to provide a friend with an appropriate name for his cat: Atomzeitalterkatze

    In a somewhat unrelated concept: have you ever found yourself talking to someone and the “normal” word for a simple concept fails you but you can easily reach for some SAT-type word in its stead?

    What I should have said was “Yeah that happened at about the same time”, when I actually said “Yeah that was, uh, penecontemporaneous with that…”

  2. Scott Says:

    Please define flayrah and use it in a sentence. Hey, I did learn something in English class!

    BTW. Good luck on your book. Let us know when you get it published. I’d like to get a copy.

  3. I loved Book Center pepsi Says:

    This is far too heady a topic for me … I find myself in high cotton.

    The one thing I can add is this: Once, in trying to describe a brightly illuminated auditorium in which the level of light was far beyond the necessary, I said: Yeah, and didn’t you think it was really lit white?

    Lit white? For far too bright, for a whiteness exceeding comfort?

    Lit white. I have yet to live it down.

  4. Catherine Says:

    Oh, gracious — yes, I can think of a lot! And I will share a couple, too; I’ll take the dare and go recent.

    Occasion 1.) Sometime last year I was writing rather passionately and I didn’t feel like stopping and using the dictionary (DON’T copy me on this point, anyone); and some words I used I knew how to spell and to pronounce, but couldn’t remember their meanings. One such word was “eclectic”; I used it correctly and later found that fact out, to my delight. Heartened by this, I continued the game of chance. I described one person as “enigmatic”. He was really a minor character, and I really meant to say something like “ruthlessly, sardonically cheerful”. Then I asked my better-informed father what “enigmatic” meant and he directed me back to the root word enigma; and when I asked him to define that one, too, he said “puzzle”. I had made my cheerful lawn-mower into a mysterious character by a single word!

    Occasion 2.) This is a little harder to define. I learned to read on Calvin and Hobbes. I barely remember that time, but what I do remember is spending a long time upon a pretty simple word. In the strip Calvin is hiding from Hobbes in a hide-and-seek game for much too long, and when he finally exits his hiding place to find the recalcitrant tiger he finds Hobbes reading all of Calvin’s forbidden comic books. Angrily, Calvin shouts: “All right, give ’em back!” I couldn’t think what the word “em” was, and I finally decided that Hobbes was reading Calvin’s favorite comic, titled “Emma the Elephant and her Pink Hairbow”, and so Calvin was really saying: “All right, give Emma the Elephant, etc., back!” All that from two letters! It took me a long time to realize that all Watterson had dropped from the word were the letters th.

  5. Daylily Says:

    My favorite story along this line involves my two children. My son is five and a half years older than my daughter. My son was eager to hold the new baby, so I carefully instructed him on how to support her head. He called to me proudly, “Look, Mom, I’m separating her head!”

  6. Eunice Says:

    Growing up on the ferry-laden Puget Sound, perhaps it was natural that I thought of the Tooth Fairy as the Tooth Ferry. After all, I even had a toy ferry for the bathtub! So when I lost my first tooth, I floated it in a dishpan of water on the floor by my bed, and in the morning there were pennies at the bottom of the dishpan!

    The funniest thing is that my parents never understood my reasoning. The first time my dad carried a dishpan of water to my bedroom, my mom asked, “What are you doing?” My dad replied, “I don’t know. Eunice wants it!”

    Now I’m a mom myself, in fact, Catherine’s mom, and I never asked a lot of questions either. I’m reaping the benefits in her adolescence, as I’m hearing all her child’s magical thought patterns as she remembers them and tells us with incredible clarity and humor. (Yes, I did eventually explain to my parents about the dishpan!)

  7. Chris Says:

    Book Center Pepsi:
    If you ever want to have some fun in relation to “lighting topics”, try looking into the “exciting” topic of “color temperature”, “black body radiators” and “spectral power distributions”!

    Here’s a place to start:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_temperature

    No more need you say “that was lit white”, now you can say “Hmm, this room appears to be lit by a source with a plankian radiator correlated color temperature of around [insert number] kelvin”

    Trust me, no one will give you a hard time then.

    You’re welcome!

  8. Ella Says:

    Lol! I love the word “Fernwise”.
    That happens to me a lot. The funny thing is that often I’m so completely sure that these words exist that when I’m using them in my speech no one questions it because somehow I manage to make it seem like it actually is a word(I say it with that much confidence).
    I’m sure I read the word “Gaes” in a fantasy novel at some point but now it is permanently in the Ella Dictionary. It is like a leather collar or bracelet that works to disrupt the magic of the wearer. Lol that might not have been what it originally was when I first read it but the thing is that’s how I remember it so that’s what my brain says it is.

    I worked in a library as a page for a few years and one day I was shelving some children’s Non-fiction books and out of the corner of my eye I read the spine of one that was called “Calgary: A river city”. Except I read it as Ri-verce-ity. Took me staring at it for a minute to realise that it was actually River City but by then my writer’s brain was already turning and I’d come up with a title for the novel I was working on.
    Reversity: the way or tendency for something to reverse.
    Only after I looked it up in a dictionary did I realise it wasn’t actually a word. But I still hold that maybe it should be. It kinda makes sense doesn’t it?(or is that just me lol)
    I’d love it if I could still call my book that but I can just imagine the nightmare of getting that approved! But hey, Shakespeare right?

  9. Shieldmaiden Says:

    I had lots of (mis)conceptions as a child but not many of them involved words, it was usually something visual. Like how I was sure (living in S. California all my life) that the sun put itself out every night by diving into the ocean, I was absolutely positive I could hear the sizzle and hiss as it touched the water. Since I never saw the sun come up while I was still young enough to believe this was how night happened, I never did think of a way to get it back into the sky every morning.

    Probably the best one wordwise (which is very different than fernwise) happened when my son was two. He asked me what a “shaminow” was. I didn’t have ANY idea, but he wouldn’t let it drop. Over the next year (yes, YEAR) I tried figuring it out by asking him what a shaminow did or what you needed one for. He told me that he HAD to have one so that he could be a disciple. I started trying to figure out if maybe the word minnow had anything to do with it, was he thinking of a fish or to be fishers of men??? He just looked at me with a great big NOPE! He never let it go, he asked again and again, then finally one day when he was three, he heard the verse: “By this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” And he said “That’s it! What’s a shaminow?” It was really; shall-men-know, and suddenly the mystery was solved… but he still wanted to know where to get one!!!

    I do happen to both know of and use a word which isn’t yet generally acknowledged, but it has definitely been incorporated into the vocabulary of some of us here. Any one guess it yet? Yep, the sound a new subject makes; “groink” is becoming a new word among readers of the blog . I know I use it now anytime I need to make a sudden topic change.

    I have a made up word like that too, my family started to say it and now other people who know us use it. The word is: “nurk” – a thing, stuff, random bits of obscure something or other. It is both singular and plural. There can be a nurk or it can be a whole box full of nurk! Which is more likely the case when it comes to NURK! On rare occasions a nurk can also be a strange pain, cramp, or kink of some kind. I have a nurk in my side or the garden hose has a nurk in it. I really can’t say why, that is just how it is.

  10. fsdthreshold Says:

    My mom told the story of how she thought the word “misled” was pronounced “mizzled” until she saw it divided at the end of a line.

    When I was a kid, I thought “consequently” was pronounced “con-SEE-quent-ly”–I was basing it on “sequence.”

    Scott, “flayrah” is from _Watership Down_. It’s the rabbits’ word for excellent food, delicacies–lettuce, for example, as opposed to the usual grass and weeds.

    “Lit white” works fine for me! I’ve seen rooms that were lit white!

    At our bookstore, my mom was inventorying the magazines one day, and she asked, “What’s this one called STALL ONE?” I explained that it was STALLONE, all about the actor.

    Wonderful stories, everyone! Thank you all for replying to this post with such fantastic examples!

  11. Nicholas Says:

    This one’s embarrassing because I was an adult (just barely) when I made this mistake, and it was published…

    During my first college go-around, back in 1990-92, I wrote theater reviews for the university paper. In my review of George Bernard Shaw’s _Arms and the Man_, writing on deadline (and not having the Internet back then), I referred to the Serbians (or Servians) as Serfs.

    After the paper came out, I heard many jokes along the lines of “Surf’s up, dude!”

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