Sunday, February 09, 2014

Christmascarolization is a subset of Starwarsification, really (15,842 New Words)

Back at Xmastime, I found out that Charles Dickens -- who I blame for the ongoing ChristmasCarolization of Xmas, by which I mean that as time goes on, we retreat more and more from writing any original Xmas stories and...

...and I just realized that everyone is going "Hey, uh, you are aware that Xmas was like a zillion months ago, right?" so don't worry, this is NOT a Xmas post, I'm going somewhere with this...

...we retreat from writing original Xmas stories and just rewrite A Christmas Carol over and over, replacing Ebeneezer Scrooge with whatever character we have, which is why next year I'll be unveiling A 2 Frogs' Xmas Carol, but anyway, that's not my point.

My point is that this year I found out that Dickens wrote a Xmas story every single year, something you, like me, probably never knew.  Having found that out, this past Xmas I got my hands on them and read a few of them, and I can report that

(A) Xmas was actually kind of a sort of Hallowe'en back in the olden days, judging by the number of eerie Xmas stories people wrote. Between some of Dickens' weird stuff and Robert Louis Stevenson's Markheim, Xmas started out being pretty spooky, so really if you want a traditional Xmas you should watch The Nightmare Before Xmas, but

(B) Dickens wasn't above making up a word and using it for no reason whatsoever.

That latter is the point of this post, so sorry about all that Xmas stuff introducing it.

The word in question is sassigassity.  Dickens uses it in his story A Christmas Tree, in which he stares into a Christmas tree, looking at the ornaments and remembering all the prior Xmases, going back to when he was a kid.  It begins with this memory of childhood toys:

All toys at first, I find. Up yonder, among the green holly and red berries, is the Tumbler with his hands in his pockets, who wouldn't lie down, but whenever he was put upon the floor, persisted in rolling his fat body about, until he rolled himself still, and brought those lobster eyes of his to bear upon me--when I affected to laugh very much, but in my heart of hearts was extremely doubtful of him. Close beside him is that infernal snuff-box, out of which there sprang a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown, with an obnoxious head of hair, and a red cloth mouth, wide open, who was not to be endured on any terms, but could not be put away either; for he used suddenly, in a highly magnified state, to fly out of Mammoth Snuff-boxes in dreams, when least expected. Nor is the frog with cobbler's wax on his tail, far off; for there was no knowing where he wouldn't jump; and when he flew over the candle, and came upon one's hand with that spotted back--red on a green ground--he was horrible. The cardboard lady in a blue-silk skirt, who was stood up against the candlestick to dance, and whom I see on the same branch, was milder, and was beautiful; but I can't say as much for the larger cardboard man, who used to be hung against the wall and pulled by a string; there was a sinister expression in that nose of his; and when he got his legs round his neck (which he very often did), he was ghastly, and not a creature to be alone with.

Ha ha! Cherished memories.  Then, through a series of other frightful images, Dickens begins to remember books he has been given for Xmas as presents, and gets to this one:

And now, I see a wonderful row of little lights rise smoothly out of the ground, before a vast green curtain. Now, a bell rings--a magic bell, which still sounds in my ears unlike all other bells--and music plays, amidst a buzz of voices, and a fragrant smell of orange-peel and oil. Anon, the magic bell commands the music to cease, and the great green curtain rolls itself up majestically, and The Play begins! The devoted dog of Montargis avenges the death of his master, foully murdered in the Forest of Bondy; and a humorous Peasant with a red nose and a very little hat, whom I take from this hour forth to my bosom as a friend (I think he was a Waiter or an Hostler at a village Inn, but many years have passed since he and I have met), remarks that the sassigassity of that dog is indeed surprising; and evermore this jocular conceit will live in my remembrance fresh and unfading, overtopping all possible jokes, unto the end of time.

So when I came to that part I thought "Hey! Sassigassity! That's a new word and now it's part of the 15,842 new words I am going to learn in my lifetime," and so I looked it up, only to find that it has no meaning.

But more than that-- more than being a made up word, it's a special kind of made up word.  Because as I looked around for sassigassity to see if the meaning I was getting from the context was right, I found this phrase:

hapax legomenon

which is actually not the thing you say to Superman's archenemy to send him back to his own dimension, but it's okay if you confused the two.

A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once in a context, whatever that context is.  The most common context for a hapax is that it appear only once, say, in the complete set of an author's works, which is what sassigassity is for Dickens: it is a word that appears one single time in all his writings (and, apparently, in all of literature).

Here's what's even weirder about hapaxes: they're very common, and there's even a law that describes how they occur:  Zipf's law, which is this:

Zipf's law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc. For example, in the Brown Corpus of American English text, the word "the" is the most frequently occurring word, and by itself accounts for nearly 7% of all word occurrences (69,971 out of slightly over 1 million). True to Zipf's Law, the second-place word "of" accounts for slightly over 3.5% of words (36,411 occurrences), followed by "and" (28,852). Only 135 vocabulary items are needed to account for half the Brown Corpus 

 I'm not sure how that's helpful, but now I know that pizza will appear in my writings twice as often as the next most common word (leftover pizza, I assume.)

Hapaxes are different than nonce words, which are words you make up for a single occasion, and which then may be adopted or not.  Quark was a nonce word, made up by James Joyce. and only later used to apply to the subatomic particle.

Just to finish this off, consider this word:


That word is somewhat remarkable.  Coined by Shakespeare, it was used in Love's Labour Lost, and means "the state of being able to achieve honors," and not only is it a nonce word, but it is also a hapax legomenon, as Shakespeare used it only one time, but beyond those two it is also the longest word in the English language featuring only alternating consonants and vowels.

Use it in a sentence today!


Robin said...

Lots to comment on in this post...

First, let me say that after I finished reading I just sat and THOUGHT about it. On the one hand, I like so many things about Christmas today. I love the light displays that people put out and I enjoy simply driving around during the holidays and looking at houses. It all feels tinkly and magical and good.

Then I read your excerpt from one of the other Dickens stories and... I wondered what Christmas was like throughout history. 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,0000 years ago... And what would someone think if we could pluck them out of their time and into ours? Just about Christmas. Not all of the other tech advances that would surely blow their mind.

Of course, that wasn't even the meat of this post. Made-up words used only once (I can't remember how to spell it or I would) and nonce words. And then there was that bit on the most used words. I am a word junkie. I ate all of that up like it was PIZZA.

And then it reminded me of a post that I wrote a long time ago (well, a couple years) when I introduced my own made up word. Sadly, it hasn't taken hold. But, maybe if YOU start using it, too, it will catch on.

Briane P said...

I am GOING to use that word.

I've thought about that, too -- even for people from the 30s and 40s, when Xmas was just "Hey, let's go home from work, pick up a tree on the way, decorate it tonight, and wake up in the morning and open some presents." We think that things are "traditional" but they VERY MUCH are not; they're just something we make up to make it feel traditional because we like the way that feels.

Did that make sense?

Anyway, that's why we tend to watch horror movies on Xmas. That's OUR tradition.

Andrew Leon said...

Hmm... now, I want to write more Christmas stories, and I want them to be full of more goblins and all kinds of other not spectery creatures.
And I want to make up words.

You know, we should come up with a new word every week that everyone in IWM needs to use in a post each week, but it has to be the same context.

Joy Pagel said...

That's a good idea, too.

Let's run it by the Web Tsar.

Briane P said...

Argh. I hate when I don't realize Sweetie is logged in.

Liz A. said...

Sassigassity. I think I'm going to adopt that word. It'll make the kiddos look at me weird. Like when I throw catawampus at them.

Speaking of pizza, now I'm hungry. I think today is a good day to order some. What do you think?

Joy Pagel said...

It's ALWAYS a good day to order pizza.

I'd have ordered some myself, if we hadn't already had some leftover from last night.

Catawampus: I think Stephen King uses that one a lot.

Briane P said...

Oh, man Sweetie needs to sign out or we need to get her computer fixed.

Andrew Leon said...

I don't believe you. I think there's something you're not telling us.

Rusty Carl said...

Oh man, I so wish I'd read this earlier today, as I already made up one word already (comasetic) AND I had my performance evaluation today at work. I was certainly in a state of being able to receive an honor.

I can see it now, "Thank you, but this great honor you've given me, is really and award for all of us, but I suppose it had to got to me, and not someone else, as I'm clearly the most honorificabilitudinitatibus of us all.

Andrew Leon said...

@Rusty: You don't get to mention that and then not tell us how it went.