J'accuse James Joyce and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
No one ever accused English of not accepting new words, but three speakers have certainly tried to stretch the language to the breaking. James Joyce, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and George W. Bush have all done their part to make the invention of new words an acceptable art form. Yet the potential for misunderstanding increases with each creation and, depending on one's position, that misinterpretation could be deadly.
The proclivity towards linguistic innovation is nothing revolutionary, but it does seem to be indulged in more often these days. Part of this is likely due to the arrival of the sound byte, and grammatical and lexical mistakes by figureheads are often replayed constantly in a show of media superiority. New words thus enter the collective unconscious and, instead of being mocked as errors, eventually gain credibility simply by public acceptance and familiarity.
James Joyce primarily experimented with language in his influential and nearly impossible Finnegan's Wake. He often used one word to capture the essences of many more, thus painting a complex picture with one stroke. To do so, he drew upon a variety of languages from a variety of time periods, necessitating reference guides to many who tackle the work. Yet not all is restricted simply to the literary elite: It was James Joyce who gave us the word quark, a subatomic particle. His power and style are legendary, but often only to those within the ivory tower. His numerous permutations are most often forgotten.
Yet Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre protégé, reached millions more. His lexical stylings remind one more of a language than simply word creation. What I call "Snoop Latin" involves inserting "-izz" or "-izzay" into previously established (often monosyllable) words. Thus a profanity dealing with excretion becomes shiznit, drive becomes drizzive, and fake becomes fizzake. Snoop Latin can be used in a similar method as Pig Latin: profanities can slip by censors when coded into a foreign language. Bizznatch, another Dogg concoction, works on multiple levels not unlike the multitudinous examples from Finnegan's Wake, indicating both bitch and snatch in an unified word using "-izz" as glue between the two ideas. Again, the word slips by the censors.
James Joyce and Snoop Doggy Dogg still maintain specialized audiences though, and, for that reason, the influence of both artists barely registers in dictionaries. The most powerful lexical innovator is President George W. Bush. With consistent media attention, his word creations enter millions of homes almost instantaneously in ways Dogg and Joyce could only imagine.
However, unlike Joyce and Dogg, Bush is not an artist. Instead of appearing as having made a conscious choice to create new words to fit specialized situations, Bush simply appears ignorant. Joyce and Dogg's audiences are aware of the lingual trickery they are about to experience and can often gain entry into understanding. Bush's audience, a definitely more varied audience, has no tools at its disposal.
Bush claimed "Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods" in Austin, Texas, on December 20, 2000. The audience has lucked out this time: Bush has explained his personal understanding of "hemispheric," which obviously differs from the accepted meanings as found in millions of dictionaries. Yet the danger is real that this leader of the free world could inadvertently cause confusion, particularly when his meanings are the opposite of the common definition: "Well, I think if you say you're going to do something and don't do it, that's trustworthiness," (CNN online chat, August 30, 2000). More worrisome is his lack of desire for learning the true meanings of words and concepts: "If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it," he adamantly stated in the final debate in St. Louis, Missouri on October 18, 2000. Oversimplification is another concern: "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it" (Reported by Reuters, May 5, 2000).
While we have a word for typographical errors, "typos," we have no such word for verbal missteps. I argue that Bush should concentrate his gift for lexical creativity towards that goal instead of polluting the language with "hopefuller" (speech in Washington, D.C. on January 11, 2001), "resignate" (speech in Portland, Oregon on October 31, 2000), and "subliminable" (speech in Orlando, Florida on September 12, 2000). Bush needs to accept that Dogg had a clear political agenda for creating Snoop Latin, yet Bush's inclination to use "-able" achieves no end result other than a slight wounding of the English language.
It seems as if Bush was absent from Yale the day they covered prefixes and suffixes. "They misunderestimated me," Bush revealed in Wal-Mart capital Bentonville, Arkansas on November 6, 2000. I almost expect him to reveal someday that "they ultrasupermegamisunderestimated me, and I'm ultrasupermegamisunderestimatable." He tends to pile on prefixes and suffixes as if they were tax cuts and abortion restrictions. Another disturbing habit of Bush's is his frequent inability to understand suffixes: "I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together" (comments made in Bartlett, Tennessee on August 18, 2000). He fares just as poorly with prefixes: "I think anybody who doesn't think I'm smart enough to handle the job is underestimating" (quote from U.S. News & World Report, April 3, 2000).
Another favorite technique of Bush is conjugation trickery that often fools only himself: "I would have to ask the questioner. I haven't had a chance to ask the questioners the question they've been questioning" (Comments made in Austin, Texas regarding confirmation hearings of Linda Chavez on January 8, 2001). Were the questioners questioning the question? I wish we had a president who did not seem to be a character from an Abbot and Costello skit, trapped forever in a horrifying "Who's on First" loop.
The unfortunate news is that Bush's problems not only reflect his own failing grasp on the English language, but that his illness may influence the nation. Already Craig Wormley, attorney for Al Joseph DeGuzman, the alleged mastermind of a failed DeAnza College bombing, has appeared on television speaking of his client's "fascinization" with bombs; written press reports correct his misstatement for him.
I am sure that Bush's presidency would not allow Ebonics to be considered a language, but is not Bush's speech non-standard English? It is, and his numerous grammatical errors (frequently subject-verb agreement) lead many to fear both the economic and intellectual decline of our nation. James Joyce and Snoop Doggy Dogg enhanced art with their innovative techniques, and their creations remain limited to specialized segments of the population; Bush's lexical antics are too frequent, too powerful, too dangerous, and too unconscious to be celebrated.
Dre, Dr. The Chronic. USA: Priority/Death Row, 1996.
Joyce, James. Finnegan's Wake, 1939. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Weisberg, Jacob and Bruce Nichols, eds. George W. Bushisms : The Slate Book of The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of our 43rd President. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.