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You may have noticed that I like to make up new words for things, even when I suspect there's a perfectly good word already in existence and just happen not to know what it is. As I was writing about formulation, I realized this tendency of mine would make a good essay topic. After all, I'm not the only one who does it—why else would philosophers all have their own individual systems of jargon, unless they're all too lazy to look up the conventional words? Here's an example from Consciousness Explained.

In fact, just about every author who has written about consciousness has made what we might call the first-person-plural presumption: Whatever mysteries consciousness may hold, we (you, gentle reader, and I) may speak comfortably together about our mutual acquaintances, the things we both find in our streams of consciousness.

What is this but projection applied to conscious experience?

I don't mean to pick on Consciousness Explained in particular. Most of the time, in fact, I avoid philosophy altogether, because I don't think the things to be learned are interesting enough to be worth the trouble of putting up with the jargon. Thus, the fact that I'm reading Consciousness Explained at all tells you either that the things to be learned are very interesting or that the jargon isn't too bad. (It's some of both, actually.) By the way, it may seem like there's a conceptual problem—how can I know what the things to be learned are, without learning them?—but, in practice, there are ways. For example, I can let a trusted third party learn the things and summarize them for me, as in A History of Western Philosophy.

That said, I hope you don't find my own little system of jargon to be too opaque.

To be fair, I should also point out that there probably is a real reason why philosophers have their own systems of jargon, namely, that it allows them to create particular sets of associations without the extra baggage that comes from using an existing word. One could achieve a similar effect by attaching, say, the author's name as a prefix, so that the first-person-plural presumption would be called Dennett-projection, or perhaps Dennett.projection, reminiscent of namespaces in computer science … or should I say computer.namespaces?

But I digress. As I was saying, I wanted to write about this tendency of mine to make new words. The problem was, I needed a name for the tendency, and nothing was coming to mind. What else could I do but make a new word? Even better, I realized, it would be a self-referential word, like sesquipedalian. (There's a name for self-referential words, too, but it's not coming to mind.) So I started thinking about it … not about a name for the tendency, actually, but about a name for the result, for the newly-invented word. I thought of “spoonerism”, which my dictionary defines as

An unintentional transposition of sounds of two or more words, as Let me sew you to your sheet for Let me show you to your seat. [After William A. Spooner (1844–1930).]

If a spoonerism is a mistake of the kind made by Spooner, then a mistake of the kind I make when I invent a new word would be … an urticism? I liked this; the verb form would then be “urticise”, a kind of a shooting yourself in the foot, but with nettles.

Fortunately, I was saved just in time by another association via the “-ism” suffix, “neologism”. This was exactly the word I'd been looking for. Whereas “coin” has positive connotations, suggesting the creation of a valuable new word, “neologize” has negative connotations, i.e., is a pejorative. I confirmed this by looking up “neologism” in my dictionary.

  1. A newly coined word, phrase, or expression.
  2. A meaningless word or phrase coined or used by a psychotic.

By the way, all the other “-ism” words I can think of (“solecism”, “anachronism”) indicate mistakes, except perhaps for “witticism”. This use of the suffix “-ism” should of course be distinguished from the use that indicates belief, as in “creationism”.

Unfortunately, although I like my little joke above, I have to correct myself. Now that the word “syllogism” has occurred to me, I have to say that the former usage probably doesn't indicate a mistake after all. I'm not sure how to describe what it indicates.

Anyway, it turns out there's even a word related to “neologism” that I can use to describe my tendency to make new words: neology. Note that as with the suffix “-ism”, the suffix “-logy” can have different meanings. On the one hand, it can indicate a field of study, as in biology, geology, or zoology; on the other, it can indicate something about words, as in analogy or neology. As I understand it, both meanings originate from the Greek “logos”, “word”.

* * *

I mentioned, above, that one could use namespaces as an alternative to neology. Of course I was thinking of hierarchical namespaces and hierarchical language, so I figured it was all just hypothetical, but it turns out it's not, it's entirely actual. Here are some examples involving non-hierarchical namespaces.

  • Because English is a combination of German and Latin, there are for many concepts both a simple Germanic word and a fancy Latin word. The fancy words constitute a second namespace. If, for example, I wanted to focus on some particular aspect of the word “idea”, I could use the word “notion” instead. The distinction would be clear, but the connection to the original word would be obvious.

    The second namespace isn't reserved for any single domain, and of course the words do already have various meanings, so it's probably best to use it only temporarily—within the scope of a single essay, say.

  • Any foreign language can be used as a namespace. That's what happened with the words “ana” and “kata” that I mentioned in Notes.
  • In written (as opposed to spoken) language, different fonts and colors can be used as namespaces. I can't think of an actual example right now, but I have definitely seen it happen more than once.


  See Also

  Basic Idea, The
  Words Are Not Ideas

@ August (2000)
o August (2003)