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Words, words, words

india Updated: Apr 03, 2010 23:06 IST

Each year The Washington Post conducts a neologism contest. It’s a fun way of creating a new word. From what my cousin Lakshman Menon has sent me, the contest appears to consist of two parts. The first asks readers to supply alternative meanings for common words of everyday usage. The second asks them to alter a well-known word by adding, subtracting or changing one letter and then suggest a new meaning for this creation. The winning entries had me in splits.

First, the new meanings for words we all know and regularly use. It seems there were 16 winners but six are particularly clever. They appear as you would expect to find them in a dictionary if the new meanings overtake the original ones. (1) Coffee (n.): the person upon whom one coughs. (2) Flabbergasted (adj.): when you are appalled at how much weight you have gained. (3) Willy-nilly (adj.): impotent. (4) Negligent (adj.): the condition in which you absent-mindedly answer the door in your nightgown. (5) Balderdash (n.): a rapidly receding hairline. (6) Circumvent (n.): an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by jewish men.

The second half of The Washington Post contest is, no doubt, more demanding. The contestants are asked to both alter an existing word and then suggest a meaning for it. Obviously the second has to connect with the first. That is the difficult part.

This time the paper chose 17 winners but nine are outstanding. Here they are as you would expect to find them in a dictionary if ever they become real words: (1) Bozone (n.): the substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. (2) Foreploy (v.): any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of achieving sexual intercourse. (3) Cashtration (n.): the act of buying a house which renders the buyer financially impotent for an indefinite period. (4) Sarchasm (n.): the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it. (5) Decafalon (n): the gruelling event of getting through the day consuming only what is good for you. (6) Glibido (v.): all talk and no action. (7) Beelzebug (n.): satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out. (8) Caterpallor (n.): the colour you turn after finding half a grub or worm in the fruit you are eating. (9) Ignoranus (n.): a person who is both stupid and an asshole.

I’ve rarely heard neologisms trip off Indian tongues. Perhaps the editor of Hindustan Times might organise a contest to judge how inventive and witty we are?

But a neologism we badly need is a word for almost the opposite — that is using a word to mean something it did decades ago although today it means something very different.

For example, take the word ‘gay’. Mummy, who’s just turned 93, still uses it to describe the men she knows. This is how she introduced an 80-year-old general the other day: “He was quite a gay lad in his time.” As he blushed, I wondered if Mummy had stumbled on the truth.

The prize, however, goes to the sub-editor of one of our more highly regarded English newspapers. Subbing an analysis of Chief Justice Shah’s Section 377 judgement decriminalising homosexuality, he rang a colleague for advice: “The word gay appears twice in the same sentence. Do you think I should change the second to cheerful?”

The views expressed by the author are personal