Monday, August 31, 2009

New Words

I am fascinated by new words. The English language has always been known for its ability to adopt words from other languages, or to originate new words on its own, but the speed with which such words proliferate has increased dramatically with the advent of modern communications: television, iPhones, twitter, etc.

Of the new words added each year, a few of them stand out because each describes some common situation that has not preciously had a unique description. Some examples follow, along with the year they were added to the dictionary:

1.) Stacation (2009) A vacation spent at home or nearby. This has become a rather common event since the advent of the recession of 2008.

2.) Air quotes (2008) A gesture made by raising and flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands that is used to call attention to a spoken word or expression. Previous to this action, if one wanted to indicate a quotation in conversation, it was necessary to actually say “quote unquote".

3.) Mondegreen (2008) This is my favorite. A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, typically a standardized phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, in a way that yields a new meaning to the phrase.

First, some background. When the writer Sylvia Wright was a child, her mother used to read aloud to her from Percy's Reliques, and the child heard one of her favorite poems as follows:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl Amurray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green.” So when Wright learned the actual fourth line, she coined the new word to describe this situation. Here are a few examples:

Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life ("Surely goodness and mercy…" from Psalm 23).

"Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” from the hymn ("Gladly The Cross I'd Bear").

“I’ll be seizing you in all the old familiar places” from the 1938 popular song (“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places”).

In Tabitha Soren's "Choose or Lose" 1992 interview with Bill Clinton, she asked "Who's your favorite musician?" After Clinton replied, "Thelonious Monk," Soren later asked, "Who's the loneliest monk?"

You get the idea.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why That Name?

So here I am about to start my first blog for “Thoughts Before the Alarm Sounds.” I guess I should explain how I arrived at the name.
I believe that ideas are like plants. Thoughts (seeds) come into one’s head from who knows where, but before they become full-fledged ideas they need to germinate.
Some people think they get ideas in their dreams, but it doesn’t work that way for me, and I am not alone in that belief. I think it was William James who told of a man who just knew that he came up with great ideas in his dreams, but could never remember them until morning. So one night he set a pad and pencil by his bed. Sure enough, he awoke during the night after having dreamed a sensational thought, and still only half awake, he jotted it down. When he awoke in the morning he could hardly wait to see what his world-changing thought had been. He had written, “The odor of creosote permeates the area.” So much for that theory.
My alarm clock goes off every morning at eight, except for the few times when I have a breakfast date. Usually I wake up about an hour before that, or at least I partly wake up. It is important that I remain in a “not quite awake but not quite asleep” state, because I consider that time as the germination period for whatever seeds happen to have blown into my head.
Usually one subject seems to stand out, and I spend the rest of the hour trying different approaches to it. By the time the alarm goes beep, beep, I have somewhat of a handle on it.
As new thoughts on the subject come up, I write them down. Sometimes I need to do a little research to clarify my thinking. This part of the project may take an hour, or a day, or occasionally months or even years.
Then it’s a matter of going back and cultivating and pruning to bring out a unified understanding of the subject. Often, more research is necessary. About half the time I discard the whole thing and either start over, or move on to a new subject.
But that time before the alarm goes off is crucial to the whole thing.