How To Map a New Word


In a previous blog I suggested that any new English words, or neologisms, could be submitted to a computer search of the digitalized English literature, say from Beowulf onward, in order to discover whether the term of interest had previously been used. In what manner was its earlier use, its context of use, different from what is now proposed?

New words are often proposed as replacements for a current expression on the understanding that this neologism would be accompanied by clear guidelines for its use. Such guidelines are also referred to a definitions, or re-definitions. What was earlier called “a temporary bunch of words” may now qualify as a new single word. Its meaning would then be viewed as the area partially covered by each of the words originally tied together to form a bunch or an expression.

The following example may help: The first letters of each of the following words,“Dependable, Redoubtable, Unimpeachable” spells *dru*. It is a new term. Objects like trees would be automatically excluded as being “inappropriate”, whereas one could for example say, “John Dewey is a dru person”. It would give a reasonably clear image of the kind of person this great American philosopher was! (Of course, the statement may be regarded as a good or a poor description of the person.)

However, a composite word like *dru* should not be viewed (as was done formerly) as a one-dimensional overlap of qualities, like a series of circles which overlap a common area, but as covering a meeting point in multidimensional space, which may also extend over time, in which case one should state the temporal parameters. This is what “mapping a word” is all about.

Conjectures and Neologisms

We are living at a time when we are frequently asked to transcend the limits of conjecture. *Be inventive*, *be creative*, *stretch the envelope* are expressions widely used to refer to this. More and more of our thinking is directed towards situations which need to be described in terms of sequences, or as involving successive different processes, rather than as individual (hence stable) events, frozen in time like pottery in a Victorian display case.

By contrast, many early Greek thinkers — often mentioned as founders of our philosophical tradition — espoused the view that time and change are unreal, that there is indeed a real world from which process and progress are excluded, and belong to a chimaeral world (see Plato’s discussions of these issues in Timaeus).

In our own time the more common view runs in the opposite direction: it is suggested that we are the agents (the guilty party, as it were!) that freeze events. By doing so, we create a notion of change which in turn requires us to invent agents of change. We invent causes when we feel trapped, without explanations for events, and do so in order to account for our discomfort. Not to have an explanation is experienced by many as a deficiency, whereas a process of reification, whereby we impose stability and structure on a world, is often viewed as living in a predictable world! We invent and stipulate (conjecture?) processes which give flesh and bones to events, and often create homunculi with great powers to lift and shift events “out of their orbit” (a pre-Newtonian concept).

Indeed, Western philosophy — under which I include what some Greeks thinkers referred to as *natural philosophy*, or the study of natural phenomena, is haunted by the image of two worlds: a world of nature, which obeys and follows its own eternal rules (discoverable by us), but also a world made by us, one which is mostly beyond and unaffected by naturalistic rules, which are commanded by what Gilbert Ryle referred to as “ghosts in machines”. This world supposedly lacks universal rules but develops from emerging trends, is modish, unpredictable yet yields some of its secrets post-hoc, when we reflect on our past. There is an ever-growing literature which interprets the work of some of our major artists (past and present), a trend which is most likely to continue for the foreseeable future, even by our descendants when living in outer space, off-earth.

The picture is confused but may become more coherent during future discussions, and in step with an increase in our understanding of how human-thinking emerged from simple interacting neural networks to the complex storage and processing organ it has become, whose own limits of growth (internal or external) and capabilities are at present unknown. (Robots could be viewed as external drives, extensions to the living brain.)

There are few (if any) natural phenomena of which it can be said that these remain unaffected throughout the passage of time, or the procession of events. On the contrary: the question is to estimate to what extent events have already changed, although the names of these events have been retained, and to estimate to what extent these events are likely to be transformed in future. Some events appear to remain unchanged over time, whereas others transform. The current debate about *climate change* is an example. To cite a different example: *The Battle of Waterloo* is viewed as a stable event, although writers disagree about what happened on the battlefield, and disagree about details. The Battle of Waterloo is a historical concept, but what is discussed amongst historians are features of this event, not whether the event occurred.

To illustrate the difference between a concept and its meaning I have chosen the term *human family* which serves as the name of a phenomenon but which is also recognized by those working in the area of human relationships and institutions as a moveable feast, something which has changed throughout the course of our history.

The Human Family

*Family* is the name given to a common feature of all human societies. It is a concept which represents an event which has temporal as well as structural and functional properties. The task of any writer/reporter is to create a portrait of the family which permits readers to analyze the relationship between members. A society may prescribe what is permissible or not to those included within a family in contrast to those external to it, e.g., whether members within a family can marry, or whether marriage must necessarily be endogenous. Whatever the rules, these can change and the conditions under which such change occur would then be viewed as factors influencing family structure.

It is important that a structure of an event is correctly portrayed, that it is attributed to an event which occurred as stated earlier. The birth of a male or female child is celebrated differently in most societies and is also influenced by the order of birth — both are structural factors. To what extent does birth order play a role in determining the future of a male? Which son of a large landowner is likely to be encouraged to follow a career in the Church? (Answer: probably the third in Britain throughout many centuries.)

Birth order is a temporal factor whereas male/female is functional, that is, determines what roles will most likely be assigned to a person and when. When? The passage of time is viewed as an independent factor, not as something doled out as fleeting timeless moments, but more like a ceaseless conveyer belt. The term *moments* therefore carries with it interpretative problems, as indeed have such terms as *childhood*.

Admittedly, the above is vague. We do not normally take an arbitrary selection of words, words which are unrelated, then stitch these together: our selection is more orderly, more contrived. What is clear however is that humans appear to be continuously engaged in extending their language, to stretch the limits of what they already have. It is their response to current prevailing circumstances, to being members of a community which appears to seek and build new environments to inhabit, which secures and preserve their existence, extends their survival rather than abandons these. We need to remind ourselves how relatively short has been the past of our species measured against the estimated life of our planet and solar system and how minute has been what we often refer to as “the life of the mind” and how fragile are the conditions which sustain our species.

We introduce new words with increasing frequency. Neologisms may be viewed as transformative tools which in the past have extended our control over many but not every discernible feature of our world. There is of course no guarantee that such creative actions can continue unabated as has happened in our recent past. Our creativity has also produced conditions which threaten our continued existence. Other species have become extinct although (as far as we know) inadvertently, not through self-destruction. Many species have lost control over their environmental niche. Humans, however, have gotten perilously close to doing so, and many now claim that we have interfered with environmental factors to an irreversible extent so that the earth will be unable to support human life.

The meanings of many words are unquestionably related to their effectiveness in identifying events but there is an additional dimension which is related to the historical context of their use, the role a word plays in mapping the world for its current users. Such referential words, new or old, help to define the contours as well as the interior features of our culture, something which applies even to those words which seemingly are entirely referential.

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