PreDictionary - Mikhail Epstein

It's only words - Repeat after the author: 'dunch,' 'whynik,' 'reity,' 'bangover'


Mikhail Epstein

Atelos, $13.50, 155 pp.


Steven Wright once said that he thought the dictionary was the longest poem ever written, but who reads the whole thing? Malcolm X when he was in the slammer (if the revisionists haven't cast doubt about that detail), but who else? Yet, some of us still want the poem that we never finish to be longer still, and from time to time we get books like comedian Rich Hall's Snigglets from the '80s. A pity that his proposed additions didn't catch on. For instance: 

Hozone (hó zohn) — n. The place where one sock in every laundry load disappears to. 

Now that's a hole in the language for the hole in my wardrobe that I curse at least once a week. 

Also in the '80s there was Howard Rheingold's They Have a Word for It. That one was subtitled: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words. But most of them weren't really untranslatable. They were words and phrases that we really could use in English. A particular favorite: the French esprit de l'escalier.

Literally, that's "the wisdom of the staircase," but what it really describes is the conversational comeback that only comes to you after you've moved on and left the party; it's the unsaid remark that can haunt you for a lifetime. Who hasn't had that experience? Who couldn't use a handy term for it?

Likewise, English really could stand to import the likes of mbuki-mvuki (Bantu: to shuck off clothes in order to dance), talanoa (Hindi: idle talk as social adhesive) and baraka (Arabic: a gift of spiritual energy for mundane purposes).

And these days, The New York Times Magazine touts such wannabe words as celebracy (maintaining fame by abstaining from anything of import), tabdicate (letting the other guy or girl split the check) and dramaneering ("maintaining control by always seeming to be in crisis"). 

Now we have a rather more philosophical take on the whole enterprise from Emory University literary theorist Mikhail Epstein in his PreDictionary. 

It's a metabook on the phenomenon of coinage, arguably less concerned with the individual words than the process, for which he coins new words, a neologistic taxonomy of neologism. In other words, his neologisms have neologisms, beginning with the title. This is a collection of themed words that might make it into the language, and ultimately the dictionaries of the future. 

Thus, new words are divided into old-style neologisms (new words making their way into the language) and protologisms ("newborns still in their cradles and nurtured by their parents"). So a PreDictionary is a collection of protologisms. 

The most radical parts of his book deal with his attempt to introduce the sign "        "  — quotation marks around blank space as a device to make us think about what's beyond the margins of the text and, thus, bring inside what's outside the discussion into the center of it. That'd be handy — at least in theory — for discussing the likes of John Cage's silent piano piece, "4' 33"" and Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings. After trying to sell us on "      ," Epstein concludes his book with a rather abstract discussion of language- and dictionary-generating, particularly as it relates to the Web. 

You may or may not stay for the philosophizing, but for most readers the main test of the book will be whether his 50 pages touting 150 or so protologisms — the wannabe neologisms — are up to snuff. And there are signs that some of these may soon graduate from protologism to neologism. For instance, is it my imagination, or did I recently hear someone use the word dunch for a meal between lunch and dinner? Epstein claims that at the time of writing he could Google it to 10,000 Web pages.

And how could bangover not catch on for "exhaustion and other after-effects of sexual indulgence or arousal"? (Quick, someone, record a song with the title "Love Bangover.") And if not bangover, its protological synonym sexhaustion ought to have a good chance. And for folks of a conservative mind on matters sexual, there's the proposed term retrosexual. Will "Retrosexual and proud" T-shirts become the conservative fashion? Will the line "you retrosexual, you" be hurled in disappointment.

And for daily life, there's eventify (to make more eventful, to spice up something that happens) and we all know folks whose various preoccupations make them examples of fateniks, ifniks, meetniks, safeniks and whyniks. 

It's hard to be optimistic about bespite (combining because and "in spite of"), mehemize (to confirm hearing without agreeing; sort of a verb to describe someone going "ummm hmmm") and hu as a gender-neutral third person pronoun. (Though there are, indeed, those who call for such a term as the latter.)

But there's at least one word that I'm a little unnerved by. With virtual worlds as part of our reality, maybe Epstein is right that we need a way to refer to our old reality that excludes the virtual. "Reity is what we find around ourselves when we turn off our computers and leave the virtual worlds: the aroma of coffee, the sound of a living voice, a view from the window ..."

Having written the preceding, I'll save the document, shut down the computer and go home to reity. 

I liked it better when it didn't have a name. 


W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].