Donate.A.Word, Ltd.



A Memocratic Lexicon of Neologisms or

The Ultimate Meme Machine Project


Mikhail Epstein (Emory University)




                                    VERBAL REVENUES


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.



                                    MEME MACHINE


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.




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 (, 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).




         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)

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