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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Twas brillig and the slithy toves...

Some storytellers, being bereft of other hobbies, I guess, invent languages for their characters to speak. Tolkien, on the other hand, created characters to speak the languages he'd written - two forms of elvish, two fully articulated languages, he just made them up. You know, just because. 
Languages like Klingon and Vulcan from Star Trek are invented languages, yet aren't quite well-developed as Tolkien's - they have a vocabulary, but no grammar or inflection. This is similar to the language Esperanto, one that was created in the 1880s, in the hope (and, in fact, the word Esperanto means one who hopes in Esparanto) that people from different countries could use to communicate with each other. It was a good idea that, like the Sacajawea dollar, never really took off. It's out there in circulation and used by some, but mostly people stash it in their drawers to give to children on their birthdays. "Here honey, a brand new gold language!"
Still other storytellers create semi-languages - languages that contain both English words and made-up words, and I love it when they seep into our own language; I like to do my best to help them along. A few of my favorites:

  • Cromulent: One of a surprising number of terms that The Simpsons has coined, meaning acceptable or appropriate. It comes from an episode in which someone comments that the word "enbiggens" in the Springfield town motto isn't a real word. Another character replies "Enbiggens is a perfectly cromulent word." Awesome, awesome word.
  • Doubleplus: 1984, meaning something like "very, very." It's a nice, juicy word. I like the totalitarian nature of Orwell's Newspeak; it is completely devoid of creativity, because creativity has become a crime.1984, in many ways, was a novel about the tyranny of efficiency.
  • Karass: From Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, meaning a group of people whose lives are interrelated, often without their knowing, because they together must serve a common purpose. As I write this, the idea reminds me a great deal of the characters on Lost.
  • Horrorshow: From A Clockwork Orange, meaning good, maybe similar to the slang meaning for epic nowadays. The word does an amazing job of reflecting the culture the novel creates - it's like when you're watching Dead Alive, and the dude shreds his mother with a lawnmower, and you point and laugh because it's freaking epic. I guess with horror movies, the audience are the clockwork oranges - we see things that should make us sick, but we laugh instead. Perhaps that's where it starts?
  • Ka: Stephen King, meaning fate. Comes from the Dark Tower series, but shows up elsewhere. I love the term te ka from Hearts in Atlantis, which means "fate friend." Like soulmate, only without the romantic implication. We don't have a word for te ka in our language, which makes this an especially cromulent word.
Then there's Lewis Carroll, who doesn't translate a lot of his words within the text of his books. I was disappointed when I learned the meaning of brillig. He said that it referred to the time of day when dinner's about to be prepared,  the time when one starts broiling (in case you weren't sure if he was English). What a boring definition for such a smashing word. I imagined it to mean a hot, noxious sweltering time just before a violent storm. My definition = so much better. 


Anonymous said...

Ka is actually a combination of fate and destiny. :) The Dark Tower Series is my Bible.

Spooky said...

Wait until the Cap'n sees that you've used the word "karass". He has a story to go with that word.

Anonymous said...

I've recently started picking up an entire new vocabulary of swear words (and a few regular ones) thanks to Farscape. Their genius way of getting their swears past the censors has now turned into mine for when I'm in public or around children.
And I concur, that IS a terribly boring meaning for brillig. I actually had something in mind similar to yours.

Anthony said...

On the other hand, the definitions of toves, raths and borogoves are excellent enough to make up for it. And Humpty Dumpty didn't explain anything after the first verse, so you're still free to invent plenty of your own. Vorpal and manxome are especially choice.

New words invading the lexicon have always been fun for me. I do try to help out when I can.

Anonymous said...

Tribalprincess reminds me of the Whedonites (people that follow Joss Whedon's work), specifically the Browncoats that are near-fanatical about his defunct Firefly show. They go around saying words like:

'Shiny' -- Good or cool
'Goram' -- General curse word, I think it's supposed to be a mutation of Goddamn.
'Ruttin' -- Another general purpose curse word
'Shindig' -- A party or gathering. They usually have Browncoat Shindigs at local cons where they can geek out over Firefly.

Of course, I have the cultural advantage of just being able to switch to cursing in Chinese (which they do a lot in Firefly).

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

TribalPrincess is, in fact, a Whedonite. Me, not so much. But I've always said shindig. I think I got it from my folks.
I've become so accustomed to non-swearing zones like work that I now involuntarily shout things like "Holy frick!" and "Sweet Jebus."

Anonymous said...

@disheah Lol, I am in fact kinda like a queen Whedonite. I'm on the staff at the (now, finally!) biggest con in the country on the Whedon track. I'm like a borderline Browncoat, out of a sense of loyalty and a gorram or shiny slips in here and there ;)

N said...

In geek circles, I keep hearing the word "grok". I gather it means to understand, pick up, or comprehend. My wife uses it on occasion.

IIRC it's from some sci-fi novel about a human raised on Mars who goes back to Earth. I've actually never read it.

Anthony said...

Grok comes from Stranger In A Strange Land. The word has managed to work its way into the language pretty well- it's used rarely, but consider how many years it's lasted. I mostly hear it from programmers.

Stranger is a typical Heinlein book: it's very interesting and develops nicely, and then Heinlein gets distracted with his usual message of "everyone should have sex with everyone else immediately."

Nick and Lynn Clevely said...

I always thought brillig was descriptive of a giantessimal animal with a shiny jewelled tail...also kind of disappointed!