Mikhail Epstein (Emory University)
We are all in debt to language, whose bounty has made us rich in meaning, whose wisdom given us solace when we needed it most, whose treasures we all use without an obligation to give anything back. This is the debt we could never hope to repay in any coin -- except that of language itself. Hence, this proposal for a modest tax hike on our unlimited use of language that promises to increase our collective verbal revenues, repay our debt to generations past, and invest in the generations to come.
This tax is voluntary. No need to pay if you don’t feel indebted to your mother tongue or the language you picked up second-hand. You can offer a fresh coinage or two to the Taxicon of Coinage if you feel your language has been good to you. For those of us whose life careers are wholly dependent on the selfless genius of language, giving back in full measure might be a moral obligation.
I propose to set up a nonprofit corporation, Donate.A.Word, Ltd., that would function as a bank for verbal revenues deposited by professional writers, speakers, thinkers, scholars -- everyone who feels empowered by language and who would like to repay its endless generosity. These revenues are to be collected in a Lexicon of Neologisms that will be made available, free of charge, to all language speakers. The Neolexicon is a repository of freshly-minted words and discursive strategies that can be used for making sense together, promoting public understanding, and building public trust. The bigger our verbal capital, the more virtual worlds spelled out in the Neolexicon -- the greater the possibilities for choosing among alternative futures for us all.
The new lexicon can be seen as a meme machine, a powerful sense-generating and invention-disseminating system implied in memetics, a discipline envisioned by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes are units of cultural information or info-genes like "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches" (Dawkins). Looked at from this angle, language is a powerful tool that gives humans an evolutionary edge by enabling them to generate, store, and propagate most adaptive traits. As Susan Blackmore writes in her book The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), "The human language faculty primarily provided a selective advantage to memes, not genes. The memes then changed the environment in which the genes were selected, and so forced them to build better and better meme-spreading apparatus. In other words, the function of language is to spread memes" (p. 99).
If language is the primary and most effective meme machine, then word or lexeme is the most effective memetic unit, the one capable of instant recognition and unlimited propagation. No catchy phrase, aphorism, or poem can compete in this regard with a single word, no text equals the power of lexeme in the battle of memes. Indeed, it takes time and effort to memorize a literary work, but the word sinks roots in our memory even when we are not aware of it, it rings a bell far beyond the context where it first appeared, and it affords an instant recognition that can bring us together like no other evolutionary emergent.
From this memetic perspective, Nabokov's most successful contribution to our general memetic fund is the word "nymphet," Marquise de Sade's ultimate literary achievement is the word "sadism," and Tolstoy's most lasting impact on the evolutionary (memolutionary?) scene was in the guise of the ubiquitous lexems "war" and "peace." These words are now spelled out in every dictionary, they are familiar to people who never read Lolita, The 120 Days of Sodom, or War and Peace. If mastering lexical tools is the minimal condition for being a full-fledged human, then coining new words and expanding established dictionaries is its maximum condition. The Experimental Lexicon project appeals to the most sapient part of human nature. The nonprofit corporation Donmate.A.Word invites everybody to become a language artist, an artisan of sense, and a conscious generator of memes which can enrich our lives.
Humility, gratitude, and hope are the motives animating this project. Those willing to take up the assignment must feel humble before the awesome power of language to illuminate the human condition, to inform our lives. Good wordsmiths know how much they owe to their predecessors, to their teachers in whose apprenticeship they learned their craft, and they are willing to pass the skills along. Finally, there is a hope that our individual contributions to the verbal wealth of humanity will spur further growth in the ways that make our lives more humane and rational.
We know from Jacques Derrida that there is no such thing as a pure gift, that any gift, to put it crudely, is an investment implying a return. Just as human agents invest in language, language invests in humans, makes them its own, turns us into its implements. A gift of language obligates us to repay in the coin of neologisms, grammatical inventions, imaginative ways of making sense together. Verbal creativity is the best way to insure that we do not become the prisoners of language or speaking automata forever doomed to say the same thing over and over again. By coining words of our own, we assert our mastery over language. By expanding the circle of verbal artisans, we make sure our inventions do not trap other minds. By initiating new minds and age cohorts into the art of language, we form a vital memetic circuit that links individuals, generations, cultures, traditions, and epochs.
SEMIURGY AND SEMIONICS
I propose a discipline to go along with the project at hand, a science of new signs or semiurgy. While semiotics deals with existing signs and rhetoric studies their effective use, semiurgy focuses on the art of creating new signs and sign systems. Semiurge, then, is an artisan of signs, just like demiurge is the creator of a world.
It may be useful to distinguish between three main types of sign activity:
1. Using signs in their various combination (speaking and writing).
2. Describing signs and the rules of their usage (grammar, metalanguage, traditional dictionaries).
3. Creating new signs, inventing novel signing practices (semiurgy), and theorizing verbal inventiveness (semionics).
Along with semantics, which studies the relationship of signifiers to signifieds, syntactics, which deals with the relationship between signs, and pragmatics, which explores the relationship between signs and their users, semionics forms a fourth branch of semiotics that focuses on the relationship between signs and non-signs, semiotic presence and semiotic void, a space of meaning and a blank space.
The semionics differs from three other branches not only in the object with which it concerns itself, but also in a peculiar way in which it approaches its object -- creation and production of new signs. As a generative extension of semiotics, semionics fills the lacuna in the existing sign systems, with semiurgy representing a conscious attempt to discover new modes of thought and action. Thus, an existing verbal marker "definition" would find a counterpart in the new sign "infinition," which means a concept with an indefinitely deferred definition. This strategy would, then, spur the formation of new disciplines, dictionaries, and discourses.
THE STRUCTURE OF ENTRIES
A dictionary of neologisms will have short entries/articles that follow a certain format. A typical entry will include the following:
1. A new word. The word is to be deemed new if neither term nor its meaning (under a separate name) appear in The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Great Books online (http://www.bartleby.com/), Encyclopedia Britannica, or anywhere on the web. For the purpose at hand, a check through readily available search engines like Google will establish if the proposed coinage satisfies these criteria. The fact that such search is easy to conduct, that it is nearly instantaneous, and that everyone can replicate the outcome, makes this test practical as well as democratic.
2. The length limit. It might be prudent to limit the length of the word in order to fend off extensive arbitrary constructs consisting of numerous roots and affixes. Something between 20-24 characters would be a reasonable limit for a new verbal coin. Hyphenated words should be discouraged for the same reason (e.g., "lovable" is a word, "love-letter" is a combination of two words).
3. Grammatical note. An entry must be accompanied by a grammatical note, indicating the word's function in speech, morphological structure, kindred terms, and derivation mode. Where possible and appropriate, the entry submission should include an etymological note (e.g., the word's Greek, Latin, or other language origin).
4. Definition. To make sure that the term is meaningful or meaningfully absurd, the contributor has to offer a clear definition that establishes its semantic autonomy and demonstrates its uniqueness.
5. Examples. Two-three examples in the form of a sentences or a passage are called for to help readers grasp the neologism's semantic aura and the range of plausible usage.
6. Length of the entry. The entire article should not exceed 300-500 words. This would stem off submissions of treatises masquerading as dictionary entries.
Given these rules and limitations, we might be able to do without a massive, overburdened editorial board. Indeed, we might be able to substitute an invitorial board for the editorial one. While the latter concentrates on gate-keeping, the former encourages creativity and focuses on expanding the range of contributors.
Ideally, we could establish a mailing list for subscribers and automatically send them new words, say, every Monday. Those familiar with a given entry form a virtual society, a memetic community, united by the ever-expanding uni-verse of semantic and existential possibilities.
Each verbal coin instantly becomes a common property. Free as language itself, a neologism becomes a common point of reference for members of the mimetic community. A Monday entry becomes a buzzword of the week, a mantra, a shibboleth in our memetic community and beyond.
I am committed to donating a.word.a.week for at least a year, or until such time when there are no takers or when I am exhausted.
TRULY RHIZOMATIC PROJECT
Donate.A.Word, Ltd. is not only a memetic project. It is also a rhizomatic enterprise which blends Darwin and Dawkins with Deleuze and Guattari in the spirit that is radically democratic (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
The proposed dictionary belongs to a rhizomatic genre and is, arguably, the most rhizomatic of them all. Each word has its own entry, a model of pluralistic semiosphere. Each term interacts with all terms, is defined by other words, and in turn bears on the meaning of the surrounding entries. The relationship between the words in a Neologicon is meaningfully reciprocal and infinitely democratic. Whereas a standard text imposes a classification, a tree-like hierarchy stipulating each element's proper function, a dictionary of neologisms represents an ultimate democratic order: one person -- one vote; one word -- one entry.
There is an important difference between a traditional and an experimental dictionary. Traditional dictionaries limit the rhizomatic abundance; they describe the words that are already in use, and they are derivative from the linear texts. By contrast, a Neologicon is multilinear (as opposed to non-linear) system which meets the definition of what Deleuze calls a "radicle-system, or fascicular root."
Our collective Neologicon promises to grow into an ultimate rhizomatic enterprise, its entries proliferating endlessly without regard to existing texts and discourses and their syntagmatic connections. It is a dictionary that informs the usage. Sample-sentences, possible cases of word usage, imaginative discourses, creative contextualizations -- these textual products will follow the entries in a dictionary rather than the other way around.
Whether Donate.A.Word, Ltd. becomes a work of invention instead of being a business of inventory is impossible to tell. But doesn’t it make sense, and wouldn't you be willing to give it a shot?
A Memocratic Lexicon of Neologisms or
The Ultimate Meme Machine Project
We are all in debt to the language, whose bounty has made us rich in meaning, whose power propelled our careers, whose wisdom given us solace when we needed it most, and whose treasures we have used to our advantage without any obligation to give something in return. This is the debt we could never hope to repay in any coin -- other than that of language itself. Hence, this proposal for a modest tax hike on our unlimited use of language that promises to increase our collective verbal revenues, repay our debt to generations past, and invest in the generations to come.
This tax is voluntary. No need to pay if you don’t feel indebted to your mother tongue or the language you picked up second-hand. You can offer a fresh coinage or two to the Taxicon of Coinage if you know your native language or adopted one has been good to you and you owe it something. For those of us whose life careers are wholly dependent on the selfless genius of language, giving back in full measure might well become a moral obligation.
I propose to set up a nonprofit corporation, Donate.A.Word, Ltd., that would function as a bank for verbal revenues deposited by professional writers, speakers, thinkers, scholars -- everyone who feels empowered by language and who would like to repay its endless generosity. These revenues will be collected in a Lexicon of Neologisms that will be made available, free of charge, to all language speakers. The Neolexicon is a repository of freshly-minted words and discursive strategies that can be used for making sense together, promoting public understanding, and building public trust. The bigger our verbal capital, the more virtual worlds spelled out in the Neolexicon -- the greater the possibilities for choosing among alternative futures for us all.
We can also construct this Lexicon as a new meme machine, potentially most powerful of all language machines. I refer here to the relatively new discipline of memetics as founded by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes are units of cultural information, info-genes that are transmitted from mind to mind (or brain to brain) through books, pictures, mass media etc. As an example, Dawkins suggests "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches".
I will cite briefly from Susan Blackmore. The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): "The human language faculty primarily provided a selective advantage to memes, not genes. The memes then changed the environment in which the genes were selected, and so forced them to build better and better meme-spreading apparatus. In other words, the function of language is to spread memes" (p.99).
If language is the primary and most effective meme machine, then of all language units a separate word, a lexeme, is the most effective class of memes, the most capable of unlimited propagation. Even the most catchy phrases, buzz words, aphorisms, memorable poems and popular texts are inferior to a single words's potential to disseminate in all types of texts, to to take roots in our memory and to haunt our imagination. No text compete with a separate word in the battle of memes. No work of literature can be ever memorized and reproduced as successfully as those words that make it up.
From this memetical perspective, Nabokov's most successful composition is the word "nymphet," and Marquise de Sade's ultimate literary achievement is the word "sadism" derived from his name. The words "war" and "peace" are, in this evolutionary (memolutionary?) context, more successful memes than even such a masterpiece as "War and Peace." They permeate every consciousness, any dictionary, and even illiterate people are familiar with them. Knowledge of words is the minimal condition of being a human; the capacity to produce new words, to expand dictionaries may be the maximum condition. Thus our Experimental Lexicon,or Neologicon, could work as the most effective meme generator ever constructed.
THE TWO MOTIVES CONVERGE. MEMETIC CIRCUIT
Thus the project is double motivated. First, it involves moral virtues of humility and gratitude in rewarding language for our verbal wealth or at least paying it our membership fees. Second, this project nurtures the hope of evolutionary success, permeating the language and other minds with memes of our own invention. The fact that these two opposite motivations amount to the same project is reassuring
As we know from Jacques Derrida, there is no such thing as a pure gift; any gift, to put it crudely, is an investment and implies a return. Language also invests in us to make us its own; all these innumerable lexical and grammatical units that we receive for free, by virtue of being born as speaking animals, make us prisoners of language. We function as speaking machines for the reproduction of meanings, values and attitudes that the language imposes on us. Then, coining our own words may be the most effective way of escaping this prison of language, though this escape inevitably amounts to an attempt of entrapping other minds. Our evolutionary task is to create a memetic circuit between our minds and common language, to borrow as much as we will and to return as big a surplus as we can.
SEMIURGY AND SEMIONICS
Semiurgy is the art of creating new signs and sign systems, as opposed to semiotics as the science of signs, and rhetoric as the art of effective usage of signs. The word "semiurge" would mean an artisan of signs, like demiurge is the creator of a world.
There are three main types of sign activities:
1. usage of signs in their various combination (speaking and writing);
2. description of signs and the rules of their usage (metalanguage, grammar, traditional disctionaries);
3. creation of new signs – semiurgy; and a theory of such creative practices – semionics.
Along with semantics (which studies the relationship of signifiers to signifieds), syntactics (the relationship between signs) and pragmatics (the relationship between signs and their users) we need a fourth branch of semiotics: semionics. In semionics, a sign is taken in its relationship to no-sign, semiotic void, blank space, rather than in relationship to other signs, or their users, or their signified.
The principal distinction of semionics from the three previous branches is not only the different object of study, but also a different approach: not study per se, but creation, invention, production of new signs. Semiurgy is a practical, creative, generative extension of semionics. Semionics studies the lacuna in the existing systems of signs, whereas semiurgy attempts to fill it with new signs prompting for new modes of thought and action. For example, if we introduce a new sign "infinition," along with the existing sign "definition," a new concept of indefinitely deferred definition will emerge, with consequences for various disciplines, dictionaries, and the formation of new discourses.
THE STRUCTURE OF ENTRIES
For more practical matters, we could agree about a certain format of new words presentation. A typical article should include:
1. A new word. The criteria of newness may be rigorously provided by the absence of this word in the suggested meaning in The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Great Books online (http://www.bartleby.com/), in Encyclopedia Britannica and, desirably, on the web as a whole. A check through easily available search engines, such as Google, will take seconds.
2. It may be useful to establish some limitations on the length of the word, in order to avoid extensive arbitrary combinations of many roots and affixes. 20 characters may be a reasonable limit, and use of a hyphen to form a new word is not recommended. "Lovable" is a word, "love-letter" is a combination of two words.
3. The entry word is accompanied by a grammatical note: part of speech, formative units (morphemes), modes of derivation, similarly produced words. Then follows an etymological note, especially if the word contains Greek, Latin or foreign elements.
4. A definition. The word should be meaningful or meaningfully absurd, and its meaning should be clearly defined and demonstrated as unique for this word, making it semantically different from all existing words.
5. Two-three examples (sentences, passages) where the new word is used in a typical context, to make it easier for readers to grasp its meaning and possibly start using it.
6. The length of the entire article should not exceed 300-500 words (to preclude publication of a treatise advertised as an explanation of a neologism).
With such simple rules we do not need a hard working editorial board. Rather we need an invitorial board that will invite people to donate words.
Ideally, we could establish a mailing list for subscribers and automatically send them a new word every week, for example, on Mondays. This would create a very special memetic community.
A new word is given into free possession of everybody; it is as free as language is free. Everybody can use it creatively without any reference or acknowledgment, as we don't refer to dictionaries from which we borrow words. A new word announced on Monday can be used in the course of the following week as a buzzword, a password, a symbol, a mantra, a shibboleth in our memetic community - and far beyond it.
Personally I can commit to donating a.word.a.week at least for one year (or until I am exhausted).
TRULY RHIZOMATIC 4D PROJECT
Finally, this project is not only memetic but also rhizomatic; not only Darwinian or Dawkinsian, but Deleuzian, too, and even more so, intrinsically Democratic (4D project).
The dictionary is the most rhizomatic of all verbal genres. Each word has its own entry – a model of pluralistic semiosphere. Each word is defined by other words which in their turn are defined by still others, including, in a circular manner, the formerly defined ones. Hence the meaningful reciprocity of all words and the uniqueness of each of them. Any systematization and classification of concepts presupposes a tree-like hierarchy, but words in a dictionary are given in a democratic order: one person – one vote; one word – one entry.
However, traditional dictionaries have limits on their rhizomatic abundance. They describe the words that are already in use. Thus traditional dictionaries are derivative from the linear texts, are multilinear rather than non-linear genre. In Deleuzean terms, it is rather a "radicle-system, or fascicular root," than a rhizome in the proper sense.
Our joint Neologicon promises to be unrestrictedly rhizomatic as new words are not taken from the existing texts and their syntagmatic sequences. On the contrary, new texts - sample-sentences, possible cases of word usage, imaginative discourses, creative contextualizations - are produced as extensions of dictionary entries, as their exits into the world of real communication. Donate.A.Word can become a truly creative dictionary, a work of invention rather than a form of inventory. It will generate new texts rather than serve as a register of existing ones.
A Lexicon of Neologisms
Copyright © Mikhail Epstein (Epshtein) 2000, 2001, 2002
Mikhail Epstein is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor
of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature
at Emory University (Atlanta, GA)
Home page http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/Index.html