Author: Ken Wais
In past articles I’ve considered aspects of English and language in general that are quaint and rarely studied. For instance in one article the process of compounding in English was examined. I found it had the curious quality of being able to reverse words and form new meaning when applied. In another essay, I looked at the possibility of allowing persons to choose their names at some point after birth. In this review we’ll look at word creation and nicknames in English.
Mathematical and Linguistic Aliases
Nicknaming or alias creation is a general process that is not limited to English or human languages. But, it is a process particular to languages. Aliases are used in formal computer programming languages like Visual Basic, SQL, Python, PERL, Java, etc. Nicknames share some qualities with their formal counterparts called codes that you might be tempted to think of nicknaming as just a form of encoding names or code names for given names. But, this is not the case. An information theorist would not envision the huge set of nicknames that people are given in any language as equivalent to what is done when a source code is transformed into processed code. The rules for the latter are complex and well-defined, not such with the former. Though, both processes accomplish something similar: they take a given name (word) and map it to another name (word). Two areas of mathematics are concerned with creating aliases for any set of objects: cryptology and information theory. Cryptology is primarily focused on transforming one set of objects into another that obscures or hides the original set from detection by intruders. Information theory is a broader field that is focused on mapping one set of objects to another in a variety of ways. It primarily studies taking objects of source code and reproducing them in object code as shorten forms of the original code. This of course can be seen in compression of any source code for data transmission through sound and video. Or take compressing bank monetary transfers to foreign branches as an example of name encoding. I could go on with examples like color in video transmission, or even how the code for this Word program is read as examples of a strange form of nicknaming, but let’s not. In information theory, nicknaming is less important than in cryptology. The questions we would be concerned with in this form of nicknaming are accuracy of the code name to the original. Is it a good representation of the original? Will it not be confused with other alias names? Are the code names retrievable to their originals? We have a different set of questions for linguistic nicknaming.
Nicknames are common in our everyday world. We know of a large numbers of people and objects with nicknames. If you don’t think so, stop and consider of all the nicknames you have catalogued in your lifetime. Not just people, but places, geographic names—the Big Apple for New York, objects—money becomes dough, even feelings—feeling sad isblue. Nicknaming is a random process. Nicknames spring up because of an event or a characteristic of the object to which they are applied. There is no set of well-defined rules used to create a nickname as there are with compression of a source code. Questions we might ask of linguistic nicknaming are different than those we would ask of the mathematical form of nicknaming we discussed above. Here are few:
- Do most people have nicknames?
- Should nicknaming or alias creation be made a formal process in human languages?
- Can the process of nicknaming be reverse?
These are some interesting questions no doubt and we should look at them in depth. Doesn’t it seem most people DO have nicknames? There are constructive models for forming nicknames in English and several other languages. For instance, shortening the word or dropping certain letters and adding others. Example: Franklin can be shortened to Frank or Frankie. But, there is not a naming rule for creating nicknames. This answer addresses question 2 to some extent. But, let’s consider question 1. The only way to determine this number is by census. In fact, there may be an attempt to assess the size of nicknames in the U.S. Have you noticed that many forms you fill out virtually or on paper have a category for AKA or aliases? It is conceivable that if a concerted effort were made to assess how many people had nicknames it could be easily done, especially today with the growth of computer networks. I believe most of us have nicknames. It would be interesting to know with certainty if this is true. Let us suppose this is true in this country and others. Now we can address question 3. This question is asking if we have a nickname can it become our socially recognized birth name? In effect, the process of naming is reversed. A nickname once contrived replaces our given name. This process is loosely equivalent to iteration in applied mathematics. With iteration the output of a function is replaced as the input in the function, and the output is reevaluated. In the case of a nickname becoming a given name we don’t seek to reevaluate the name simply replace it. This process invokes the question why? That is why do this? The answer is simple. Since nicknames evolve from given names, they are more applicable to the subject than their given names. What I mean by the preceding sentence is a name that is associated with a subject synchronically (in time) as a nickname has its meaning rooted in the experience of the subject’s life. An example will illustrate the point. Let us say a person whose given name is Lawrence is gradually named Don because he coincidentally looks like a deceased person in his neighborhood whose name was Don. It happens because so many people that meet him remark on the resemblance and some even refer to him as Don in error. In this story it would appear that the name Don might assume more significance to the person whose given name is Lawrence because it is connected with the oddity of his looking like the dead person named Don. He can understand why he is called Don, better than why he is named Lawrence. All names are assignments of identities to objects in human language. Their meanings are fleeting and without substance in the sense of a law of science. Personal names in cultures outside that of English speakers often are designed to show family heritage. Even here nicknames arise. It seems nicknaming is endemic to human culture To go back to the question—Can a nickname replace a given name?—Yes is the answer. It happens all time. It is seldom if ever formalized in the sense of having a person’s given name legally changed to their nickname, but what one is called during their lifetimes most often IS their name. This is an important point. If your nickname is uttered, written and used to refer to you during a majority of your life then which name should we consider to be your real name? Clearly the nickname if it was used predominately during the person’s life. What happens in reality is what determines meaning. Regardless of the name you are given at birth, the name that attaches to you as you experience life is your real name, whether memorialized or not. And this leads directly to the second question. Should we not inaugurate a process whereby the nickname can be recognized as the formal (birth given name) name of a person? The answer should write itself. Sure we should do this. As I alluded to above steps in this direction seem to be already afoot. Look at how many formatted documents you encounter in the business world that also request alias names and wonder on how this interest may be a trend toward accepting nicknames as formal names.
Words are created in English and others language routinely. Some become staple parts of the language and others die out or never take off. I have begun to play with creating new words in English. I have 4 candidates; I don’t believe any of these have been invented yet, though my last one may have been. I will list and define these new words and then ask some questions about how to have them become English words.
Four New English Words
Upgift: To give or receive a present of more monetary value.
Downgift: To give or receive a present of less monetary value.
Futurehistory: This oxymoronic word expresses a subtle idea. It is referencing events that will occur and then become a part of the subject’s past. In this sense it skips the present moment to connect the future and past. This idea could also be expressed as Futurepast.
Bathower: To wash yourself partially by bathing, then complete the bath with a shower.
Clearly these words could be English words. What is more, the first two can easily be made into verbs. For example, take this sentence. Sharon returned the bracelet for her mother’s birthday and felt she could upgift it with a diamond necklace.
Bathower is of course of mixture of two different words Bath and Shower. Compound admixture of separate words is a common source of new English vocabulary.
How can these invented words be injected into our language? Should they be submitted to lexical authorities for approval and inclusion in the next English dictionary? Or should I just start using these words in speech and writing hoping for acceptance by my linguistic contemporaries at large? Perhaps, a method that uses both these approaches is recommended? It really doesn’t matter how I attempt to get my new words accepted, if they fit a novel description that current words in the language don’t, they will be accepted and from the spark of perhaps this website article or word of mouth, the new words will become accepted as English words. Of course, I must check that they are not already in use somewhere. If these words are superfluous and don’t’ really fit some need for expression in the language they will not become elements of our language. But, there are other factors that could affect whether these 3 words are adopted into English. What about their pronunciation? If we come up with a word that defies the usual vocal tenets of English pronunciation that word is doomed before it starts. Believe it or not that is the only restriction I’d place on new word creation. It doesn’t matter if the creator is considered an authority in the language. It doesn’t matter if the word comes from a less than standard source. We see this all the time with slang words becoming standard speech and writing. Who doesn’t use the word cool in speech and writing to mean new and upcoming ideas? There are other examples any reader could imagine. I just offered three and I am sure anyone reading this article can think of more. In fact, wouldn’t it be a grand idea to have a website associated with lexicography that allowed us to submit new words and would interact with us. It could function as the clearinghouse to word creation. It could let submitter know if the word was already in use, or why it is not a good choice as a new English word.