Indie words

My visit home a few weekends ago took a slightly weird turn when, out of nowhere, my mom mentioned my recent Facebook profile picture, commenting, “Sahil, you’re looking so metro.”

I paused. I pondered. I was confused.

In modern vernacular, “metro” refers to “metrosexual,” of course. A metrosexual male cares a great deal about his appearance and is in touch with his feminine side. And while that’s not a bad thing by any means, it wasn’t quite the look I was going for when I posed next to some street art in Chinatown.

My brother and dad snickered a bit. I drew a breath, ready to ask for clarification, but my mom beat me to the punch.

“You know, like metropolitan? You look urban, like you live in the city.”

My confusion was eased, but my interest was piqued. My mom had unwittingly referred to what’s known as a neologism — a word or phrase such as “metrosexual” that is relatively new and hasn’t really entered mainstream usage yet. You probably haven’t heard many of them, and you might say they’re indie — they include words and phrases such as “meme” (1976), “cyberspace” (1984), “soccer mom” (1992), “wardrobe malfunction” (2004) and even “indie” (late 1990s) itself. The word “metrosexual,” I found out, was coined in 1994 by combining “metropolitan” and “heterosexual,” so my mom wasn’t wrong in referring to my urban-looking outfit as metro — just a little behind the times.

Some neologisms, such as “genocide,” have entered the standard English lexicon, while some, such as “omnishambles,” I’ve never even heard of. And while some might find a problem with words being pretty much made-up — if not conjured from thin air, then a sort of Frankenword made from bits and pieces of others — I think neologisms are part of what makes language so fascinating and fun. We all learn in school that Shakespeare invented hundreds upon hundreds of words, but the needs of our language change so rapidly that words are invented more often than you’d think. As an exercise, try explaining what Twitter is to someone from the 1950s using only words he or she would know. I’ll wait.

The Washington Post has a neologism contest in which readers come up with words they think should be in everybody’s vocabulary. The full list is available here, but some highlights include “ignorial” (a monument that nobody visits) as well as “errudition” (comic misuse of big words). And despite the comedic intent, I could see myself actually using some of these words — as a copy editor, I’m definitely a “typochondriac,” or a paranoid proofreader.

Fair warning: You’re probably not Shakespeare, and something tells me you’re not going to be able to get away with making up words in your next paper. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.