William Drennan would like to make the English language several thousand words richer -- on his own terms. At a desk piled with crumpled scraps of paper scribbled with syllables, he works with a stubby pencil sometimes late into the night. His cramped study is stacked to the ceiling with the reference books he collects like a rat -- 16 foreign dictionaries, 27 years of world almanacs, every major English-language dictionary, including a full set of the Oxford, all dogeared and marked.
Yet the words Drennan plots have no plot. He is not a novelist. He's not a short story writer, not a poet. He is a neologist. Which means that for Drennan life imitates Scrabble. The man creates words. The only problem is none of his words would earn points on a Scrabble board because they're not to be found in any dictionary. Not yet anyway.
"If five of them made their way into the language, I think that would be a good batting average -- but I could be wrong," says Drennan, who in the past six years has coined more than 1,000 words, recently selecting 228 of the best for an unpublished manuscript called Neonyms -- a term he invented to mean "new words."
At 52, Drennan is a copy editor by trade. In the past 26 years, he has edited manuscripts for the big publishing houses -- Morrow, Doubleday and Scribner's among them -- from his home in White Plains, N.Y. He has cleaned up language and grammar in bestsellers from Alex Haley's Roots to Lee Iaccoca's autobiography to chapters of Richard Nixon's Six Crises. But even at the top of the copy editing heap, Drennan says he suffers from "wretch syndrome" -- long on hours, short on pay. So he entertains thoughts of fate landing one of his words on the tip of the English speaking tongue, earning himself a permanent place in the remote bowels of etymological legend.
"I got into it by mistake, by accident," says Drennan when asked why someone would make up a thousand words knowing odds are against any finding their way into a Funk & Wagnall's, much less into the sacred Oxford English Dictionary. "Because I'm looking at the dictionary all day long, I simply fell into it. At first, it was just for my own amusement. But once you get into it, you do it a lot."
And if you're like Drennan, you do it by the book. He concocts most of his words by combining established and accepted Greek and Latin word roots, although he confesses indulging reckless instincts now and then by mixing in short Japanese syllables. He strives for the lexicographic legitimacy dictionaries promise by coining mostly serious words, unlike comedian Rich Hall's Sniglets books, which Drennan snubs as "amusing but largely dealing with trivial things."
Instead, he claims to "name a number of important situations and issues" that have gone nameless until now. "In the English language, in recent years, the only two areas that have developed new words in any consistent way have been the drug culture and the physical sciences," says Drennan, who shuns using computers for his word-making as too much logic, too little serendipity. Other areas "don't necessarily spawn new words because there isn't somebody saying we need a word for this or that. No one has sat down to do it."
But Drennan has. Consider "mutergics," a feasible-sounding word (myou TER gics) he coined by combining the Latin mut, meaning basic change, with the Greek erg and ics for work and action. The result: "It means a fundamental change in the conduct of and attitude toward work," says Drennan. "That is a substantial concept today. And there is no other way to express it."
Using the post-Watergate meaning of "gate" coupled with the Latin capris for goat, he constructed the term "caprigate" to mean "any scandal in which a scapegoat is found" -- not a new concept but particularly timely these days. "Another substantial word is 'hebonomics,' which uses hebe to means pubescent and the nomics is of economics," says Drennan. "If somebody is talking about the economics of developing countries, they have to say those five words. Hebenomics says it in one word."
But when Drennan starts talking words, he inevitably clears the envy from his throat and mentions recent winners like "gridlock," "flexitime" and "palimony." None of them is his. All are certified additions to the language, all chiseled in Webster's.
"A word can be good, valid and express a concept," says Drennan. "But unless it is used, it won't be in the language. Guys like me who happen to come up with them will develop a word to express something that needs a name. You can actually take aim at it. But it has to be used."
In some etymological circles, there is a story that British philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell once suggested to the King of England that he name a commission to coin every word the English language would permit, thereby giving Englishmen the power to think more precisely. Few word experts suspect the tale is factual. Not that intentional word coining is unheard of, but prolific neologists like Drennan seem to be unusual.
Despite that, biologist Charles Blinderman contends, "The major way new words come into a language is quite deliberate." A Darwinian expert, Blinderman teaches a course at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., titled "The History of Words." He believes language evolves largely by survival of the fittest words. To dispel any suggestion of lexicographic creationism, Blinderman rattles off a string of well-plotted terms: "chocoholic," "telemetry," "Irangate," and "dystopia" -- the last being a word he thought he had devised as a graduate student, though the Oxford English Dictionary traces its use back to philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1517.
Also consciously coined are other Blinderman favorites: the French word "boudoir" he claims was formed to mimic the sound a woman makes when she is pouting in French in her bedroom; the word "jargon" he attributes to Chaucer and means, literally, the warbling of birds. But Blinderman admits that conscientious neologists like William Drennan who produce scores of words are rare -- in part, because of the ordeal of acceptance.
John Morse, the manager of editorial operations and planning at Merriam-Webster Inc., the publishers of the Webster's dictionaries regularly receives letters at the Springfield, Mass., headquarters from people proposing that a new word they invented be included in the dictionary. "They're not words that are already in use," says Morse. "And they are not words that would ever get into use."
While standards for adding new terms to the language are different for each dictionary, and even differ among the various Webster's editions, dictionary editors generally look for continued and widespread use over several years, according to Morse. They scour newspapers, books, annual reports, even menus, to confirm new terms. When one is found, it is entered into a citation file.
"We tend to collect new citations at the rate of about 100,000 a year," reports Morse, who estimates Merriam-Webster editors currently have filed away close to a million new usages for eventual consideration. How many of those will make it to the printers is a mystery to Morse. But one indication is how Webster's has kept itself up-to-date on new words: In 1976, it published an addendum to its 1961 Third International called 6,000 Words; five years later came 9,000 Words; and last year, 12,000 Words.
"There are all kinds of ways that words come into the language ... including human invention," says Morse. "But generally it's not that someone sits back and says we need to invent a new word for this thing or that."
Indeed, some lexicographers don't appreciate overactive neological imaginations like Drennan's. "To most of us trained in linguistics, the idea of trying to pose words in a dictionary is contrary and goes against the grain," says Edward Gates, an English professor at Indiana State University, and secretary treasurer of the Dictionary Society of North America. Gates remembers the story of a midwesterner a few years back who had coined a word for the 150-year celebration of a hometown. He sent the word to several dictionaries. They all answered similarly: Thanks but they needed evidence the word was in use. Still determined, the man sent press releases using the word to dozens of newspapers, hoping they would print the term. Not enough did -- they couldn't find it in the dictionary.
John Algeo, University of Georgia English professor and editor of the "Among the New Words" column of American Speech journal, says that while it is rare for an individual "to sit down and coin new words," the single exception is a modern lexicographical quirk: attempts to invent English pronouns that are not gender specific.
"Lots of people have tried to solve that problem," says Algeo. "There have been chronicled some 60 such new pronouns ... the most newly successful of those forms was 'thon,' which was actually used for a while by The Chicago Tribune to replace he and she. It appeared in Webster's Second International and then it was dropped pretty quickly."
Drennan hopes his replacement pronouns do better. He decided gender-exposing titles such as Mr., Mrs. and even Ms., and pronouns like he, she, him, her, his and hers, needed to be fixed or neutered. His proposal: titles be redesignated as "M." before the name. "It is simply written and easily pronounced (EM)," says Drennan. "The M thing is perfectly valid as the common denominator for every man, woman and child."
For sex-defying pronouns, the solution isn't so tidy. Drennan proposes his new word "re" (pronounced REE) replace both he and she. A substitute for the possessive his and hers could be "hos" (prounced HAHZ). And "hov" (HAHV) would become the nonsexist equivalent of the objective him and her. For example: If re knows what's good for hovself, the neologists better watch hos Ps and Qs.
While Drennan takes his neologist passion seriously, he doesn't take all of his words that way. For laughs, he combined the Latin roots for skull, sheet, sleep and madness to make "cranipallisomnimania," meaning "an insane desire to pull the sheet over your head and go to sleep." His word "cynoluticlyst" is a mutant invention meaning someone who cleans up after his dog. One evening he realized he had several repeating the "ooo" sound in his card file. Patching them together, he devised "noooo," a word made from the Greek noos for mind, and oo from the Greek for egg. "I put it together and said, 'Gee, I have a mind egg -- an idea ready to hatch,'" says Drennan, who abbreviates it as "n4o."
But Drennan says his words representing timely concepts are his best shot at the big time: "Aurilution" for noise pollution and "kleptomation" for thievery using automation, for instance. "Nutriage is the kind of word dictionaries may tend to pick up because it is so simple," explains Drennan. "Triage is a powerful word that means to allocate care on the basis of those who can survive. I put 'nu' from nuclear with that to mean giving medical help only to those who can be saved following a nuclear attack."
Acceptance "is in the eye of the beholder -- or the ear, if you prefer," says David Barnhart, who might be America's formeost champion of new words. A word that makes it into common usage is likely to appear in The Barnhart Dictionary Companion before a Webster or Oxford.
"A quarterly to update general dictionaries" as Barnhart describes it, every issue contains about 300 new words, cited, defined and used in context. Barnhart and his word-scouring associates survey the language, annually choosing to include about 1,200 from more than 10,000 they cite.
To confirm a word's use, Barnhart plugs into Nexus, a computerized information search system that can locate a single word's use in more than 130 publications -- some 14 billion words of text. Last year Barnhart spent almost $20,000 conducting computer searches for new terms such as "corpocracy," "crackhead," "disinformer" and "ear candy." The term "easy rider," from the 1968 movie title, last week showed 150 citations since December 1985 -- what Barnhart calls "a healthy word."
But the final basis of acceptance is "almost intuitive on my part," says the 46-year-old Barnhart, whose publishing company is located in an unairconditioned room of the old Macabee Rug Co. building in tiny Cold Spring, N.Y. Intuition about words runs in Barnhart's bloodline. His father, Clarence, produced several dictionaries bearing his name and it was the 86-year-old Barnhart's idea to start the dictionary supplement once he retired.
His intuition about Drennan's efforts? "The innovation that doesn't answer some social need doesn't get picked up," says Barnhart. "But language drift is something linguists don't really understand as much as they pretend. We don't know enough about imagination and intuition and the way the mind makes word choices to be sure."
Meanwhile, Drennan concocts more new words. He figures maybe a corporation may someday pay him for new terminology or product names. But he still hopes for the ultimate neologistic victory: The dictionary. "It is a lasting legitimacy," he says. "If you get a word that is going to last, it is like immortality."