There oughta be a word . . .

  • Posted on: 20 March 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

A missing thingFor many years now . . . it has to be going on 25 at least . . . I've thought that there ought to be a word in the English language for a thing or a concept with no name. It's the idea of something that doesn't currently have a word to describe it, but probably ought to.  Before we all knew that an aglet was that plastic piece on the end of your shoelaces, that plastic thing was one of these things, Then someone came along and invented the word. All right, it probably was a word in the shoe industry for decades, but nobody outside knew about it.  

But there are lots of examples of actual missing words. An infinite number,if you think about it. There are specific potential words about all of the things in the universe for which we have never even thought. What do you call the act of snowshoeing across the North Pole  . . . of Mars?  What do you call that glowing blue fish that only exists at the bottom of the Marianas Trench and only comes out every 10 years for mating, and which we've never seen? What do you call the top of your foot?  What do you call something that only looks good from far away? (I guess that one would be 'Layogenic' in Tagalog' (Thanks to Mental Floss for that one.)  What do you call that sudden desire to giggle when something tragic happens and your brain goes into shock and doesn't know how to react? What's the word for that mess created by a two year old when eating spaghetti? THAT should have a word.  'Mess' just doesn't do it justice. 

I know that this idea isn't unique. There have been attempts at defining this concept before. Most notably, in the 1980s the comedian Rich Hall invented the term 'sniglet' to describe something that isn't in the dictionary, but should be. Of course, he was using it for comedic purposes. And to sell lots of silly books. The idea of a sniglet has sort of faded over time. There really ought to be a real word, a serious word for this.

This past weekend's 'This Week in Tech' on Leo Laporte's network was a awash with creative ideas. In the middle of their various conversations about an endless number of smartphones and, "What the Hell is Google doing now?" gambits, the Verge's Nilay Patel threw out this concept of the thing without a word. Actually, they were talking about a specific example of this, which I'll get to in another post. (That feeling you have when you're embarrassed for what's happening to someone else on TV or in a movie.)  But they groped around for what this concept should be called, and came up with something from the Urban Sland dictionary, which I've yet to locate, and another, which is a word from German.  Actually, I guess they were trying to describe the empathetic feeling thing, not the missing word thing. My bad.

I myself have been looking around today, trying to see what is the lay of this land.  The Google seems to suggest two foreign words which might suffice, although it initially misses the 'sniglet' link, which just emphasizes how lost that one is. I don't think any of these words really fits the bill, for the following reasons:

  • Sniglet -- 'Sniglet' sort of hits the nail on the head, but as I said, it's faded, and it was really only intended as a lark.  Plus, it is a silly sounding word, which implies that the concept is a silly one. It can be, but mostly it isn't.  So I think a Sniglet is an 'X' which is used for comedic purposes. ('X' here is the missing word.)

  • Catachresis -- The first Google suggestion is a word of Greek origin, that sort of means a word for something that doesn't have one, but it's got baggage. What this really is is when someone misuses a word to fill in such a hole. It nibbles around the edge of the concept of a word for something without, but there's a sense of wrongness about it. Use the wrong concept to identify the paradox or incorrectness of a concept.  Perhaps this is more the term for a concept that is so difficult to comprehend that it is probably a good idea that there is no word for it. Not a clean candidate.

  • Saudade -- This Portuguese word does denote something that doesn't exist, but it has more of an emotional meaning. In particular, it denotes the sadness of something that is missing (and which will probably never come back) such as the love for someone who has died.  This is clearly not the word I'm seeking.

We need a word for it. So I'd suggest coming up with one. English is among the greatest of languages precisely because it is so adept at adopting, stealing, and creating words. Yes, I know that Wikipedia would probably denegrate a created word as a 'neologism', which is just a nasty way of saying 'newborn word, still wet and shaky from the trauma of coming into the world.'   But Wikipedia needs to get over itself.  And yesterday's neologism is tomorrow's 'google'.  Here's my suggestion:

  • Denecanomia -- The concept of the lack of a word to describe a concept or thing within a language. This entire conversation has been about denecanomia.

  • Denecanome -- The actual void where a word should exist for a concept or thing where no such word exists within the language. The word describing the act of getting your tongue stuck to an ice cold flagpole . . .is a denecanome.

But where did this come from? The Greek phrase for "It has no name" is Δεν έχει όνομα, which anglicized would be 'Den echei honoma', hence, Denecanomia. Why Greek? Because it's pretentious, that's why!

An interesting thing about Denecanomes is that they are so ephemeral.  Pretty much,  as soon as a concept without a word is identified, some fool comes along and absconds with some foreign word, or simply makes up something funny-sounding to fill the void.  Don't think about an elephant. Now don't come up with a verb to describe what an elephant does with a bucket of water when someone annoying gets in front of them.

I like this concept, particularly, because it is recursive. I have no power to create a word in the English language, so the concept, in my judgement, still has no word. So that means that this is a word that is what it describes. (Or if it, in fact, did exist, it would, but it doesn't, so it can't. Thus, it is.)  - OK, my head hurts . . .