Language giveth, language taketh away; as new words percolate into popular speech, others fade into vernacular’s Valhalla, joining the erstwhile if long-forgotten ranks of eath (a nifty Scottish word functioning both as adjective and adverb meaning “easy”) and the still-comprehensible, if alliteratively gangly, landlubberliness (“the state of being like a landlubber”).
The high priests of English officialdom reside where they have always resided: in the hallowed halls of dictionary editorial boards. (Not all countries follow suit, by the way: French is governed, quite literally, by the L’Académie française, an arcane committee established in 1635, ruled by forty lifetime-appointed members called immortels.)
Each year, English dictionary boards determine, to fanfare approaching the lexical equivalent of Oscar nominations, which newbies (first known use: 1970; defined in already-quaint terms as “a newcomer to cyberspace”) might join the ranks of “ranks” and “the,” among a hundred-thousand-or-so brethren that now include such technology-infused utterances as:
- woot (“used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph”)
- MMORPG (clumsily, “an internet based computer game set in a virtual world, which can be played by many people at the same time, each of whom can interact with the others”)
- cyberbullying (“the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages”)
- mash-up (“something created by combining elements from two or more sources”)
- sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone”)
Sometimes, however, the internet serves a second role: that of preservationist. The very threat of extinction can serve as a word’s revivalist champion, rekindling obscure vocables via a process whose moniker itself has yet to enter the dictionary, but is surely in contention: the Streisand effect, in which ”an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”
In 2003, Mirriam-Webster quietly laid to rest a dated gem: snollygoster, a nineteenth-century Americanism that, in 1895, the Columbus Dispatch creatively defined as, “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.” (Neither “talknophical” nor “assumnancy” have any known usage outside this definition, making this phrase as mimsy as the borogoves.)
More broadly referenced as “an unprincipled but shrewd person,” snollygoster enjoys a newfound popularity, a tweedy, rejuvenating hipster moment in which someone, somewhere, probably in Brooklyn, indignantly huffs that they said snollygoster before it was cool. Quoting an Atlantic article quoting Mirriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, “We have, oddly enough, seen more unironic and unself-conscious use of snollygoster in print in the last few years.”
Snollygoster lives! The fight to save the dictionary’s forgotten words http://t.co/ulZkjBLroB
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) August 16, 2013
With a decisive +1 from The Atlantic (not to mention a TED talk), snollygoster may be approaching an Arrested Development / Grover Cleveland moment, becoming one of the few words to enter, leave, and re-enter the bindings of Mirriam-Webster’s tome. M-W’s own Stamper waxes optimistically about the odds of this happening — that if snollygoster continues to resurge, the dictionary’s curators will “certainly consider adding it back.”
Much of snollygoster‘s triumph may be attributed to the ephemeral, viral pull of the internet, an attention engine that, in a manner similar to Cupid (the god, not the dating site), strikes immortel-like popularity into words, memes, clips, and so on, seemingly at random, but often with delicious irreverence.
As with words, so with names, as Greenpeace discovered in 2007 when inviting the internet to vote on the proposed name of a humpback whale in the South Pacific. Inserted amongst 29 other candidates, with benign, whale-sounding names like Aurora and Kaimana, was “Mister Splashy Pants,” likely intended as a joke, but one that the internet took very, very seriously.
From Facebook to Twitter, and particularly on Reddit, Mister Splashy Pants became a cause celebre, spiking traffic on Greenpeace to “near-untenable levels” and capturing an oceanic 78 percent of the vote, rivaled only by “Humphrey,” who bogarted a second-place 4,329 votes, less than three percent of the total.
When the internet refuses to let something die, it lives. The fate of snollygoster seems now to fare as swimmingly as that of Mister Splashy Pants, and it’s only a matter of time before the term is dropped by a New York Times columnist, before turning into a verb — “Bob snollygostered his promotion to Assistant Manager with monumental talknophical assumnancy.”
One hopes a similar fate awaits the interrobang.