Building words

“We encounter each other in words, words / spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed / words to consider, reconsider.”

Elizabeth Alexander


Language changes how we think((How does our language shape the way we think? Lera Boroditsky, Edge 2016)) and the right word can open a door to thinking articulately about new ideas. Before we had a word for genocide, for instance, it was difficult to talk about this idea and hard to see it in the world. The German term Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortune of another) has no direct translation in English but is a both a valid concept and a useful term. Once you learn the rich vocabulary describing mushroom texture you are more likely to carefully examine the nuance of a toadstool’s surface.

For many years I have worked with naturalist David Lukas. We had many playful and productive rambles in the Sierra and his help was invaluable in making the Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada. David always carried a bag of naturalist tools and one of the items he often drew from his bag was a dog-eared book of Greek and Latin word roots. He delighted in the stories behind words and the meanings within them. And now in his latest book, Language Making Nature, Lukas has taken this delight a step further and created his own book on how to playfully generate new words that stretch your thinking and enhance your creativity.

There are many good words that have yet to be coined. My wife and I invented fulopsi a verb meaning surreptitiously doing something sweet for the other such as putting the last pot-sticker on your partner’s plate while they are not looking. It is a nonsense word but it filled a void that we needed. Lukas challenges us to observe the world closely and find new words to help us think in new ways about what we see. But instead of making up a nonsense term, Lukas suggests that we use established prefixes, suffixes, and roots to construct words so that they become more universally understood and deeply woven into the fabric of the English language. For example: an otter moves with a distinctive undulation so how about a term to describe otter-like movement? Lukas took the genus for otter, Lutra, and added the suffix -ine meaning “of or like”. Put them together and you have lutrine. That is a great word. What else could be described with this vivid and evocative word?

Lists of prefixes, suffixes, and roots like the tattered book Lukas carries can help you construct new words. Language Making Nature includes these kinds of lists along with a wealth of strategies, suggestions, and insights into the highly creative act of word-making. This fascinating book is part etymological field guide, part history of the English language, and part toolkit.

After constructing lutrine, Lukas discovered that someone had beaten him to the punch, it was already a term in the Oxford English Dictionary. But this just demonstrates that this language making process has authentic roots. Some of the words you coin may already be in circulation. Others will be new. Lukas gives us permission to play with language, because building new words will stimulate you to think differently–and perhaps some of your new words may be assimilated into the culture.

So to catalyze your creative thinking, try logogenesis (a verb meaning word creation that I just made up) with your family and friends. Find some ideas in search of a word. Have fun with it, this language making is a deeply playful and creative process.

Learn more about Language Making Nature and order copies. You might also enjoy David’s “nature word of the day” on his facebook page.