Words, schmerds

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll, 1871

Words are funny things. They’re a jumble of letters and sounds which intrinsically don’t mean anything. A few words are onomatopoeiac – the ones that sound like the things they describe, such as “oink”, “meow” or “tick tock.” But mostly letters and meaning just crash into each other by chance. In another world a reindeer would be a rainbow, salad a skyscraper and dogfish a dance. Here are a few words you’re unlikely to know:

  • Ulaakut
  • Mabuhay
  • Le do thoil
  • Mahalo
  • Lala Salama
  • Bat’leth

“Ulaakut” is Inuit for good morning and “mabuhay” is Filipino for welcome. “Le do thoil” is Irish for please, “mahalo” is Hawaiian for thank you and “lala Salama” is goodnight in Swahili.  If you want to stretch boundaries “bat’leth” means sword of honour. But that’s in the fictional language of Klingon.

Over time language subtlely shifts so that, bit by bit, meanings change. Fast forward many generations and we don’t understand other people at all. We are one species, yet there’s no collective dictionary. We comprehend the same things, but words aren’t universal. 

Language never stands still – words and expressions shift and squirm in different contexts. Some have been completely transmogrified for corporate life. There are many examples in this article “Babblespeak” in Psychology Today and here in Forbes too. I have to confess something though. I use babblespeak myself. After years in consulting, I find it hard to distinguish between corporate jargon and normal words. Please stop me if I slip back into my old ways. 

Here are a few to get you going: blue-sky thinking, right-sizing, paradigm shift, leveraging synergies, mission critical, low hanging fruit, swim lane, best practice, think outside the box and giving 110%.

Whilst some of us repurpose words for different contexts, Shakespeare just created new ones. If he couldn’t find the right word, he’d simply conjure one up and some say he invented up to 1900 new words. It’s hard to believe they didn’t exist before he created them. Here are just a few fabrications that spilled out of his prodigiously creative mind: Bandit, critic, dwindle, swagger, uncomfortable, lonely and elbow – did this part of the body really not have a name before Shakespeare?

The meanings of words often change too. A Shakespearean “awful” meant awe-inspiring or worthy of respect. “Catastrophe” indicated the end, or a conclusion, not a disaster. And “fabulous?” That was something mythical or invented, not amazing, as it means today. 

Other words sound like they’ve been made up but are in fact real; they’re just no longer in use. Try this sentence on for size. A snollygoster often jargogles us when they suggest trumpery. After a long meeting they might be in a zwodder, often fudgeling. Or they may even excuse themselves because of hum durgeon. You can find more examples like these here and here.

This a translation of the sentence above: An intelligent but unprincipled person (especially a politician) often tries to confuse us when they suggest ideas that look good but are basically worthless. After a long meeting, they might be in a drowsy state, often pretending to work when they’re actually doing nothing. Or they may even excuse themselves because of an imaginary illness.

Why not introduce some of these into your day? Why not fudgel or jargogle, or even groke? We groke if we’re gazing at someone whilst they’re eating, in the hope they’ll give us their food. Our family dog definitely grokes. 

We’re near the end so let’s return to where we started – Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. His poem shows the malleability of words, since it sounds descriptive and evocative but it’s just nonsense really. Nevertheless, he had great fun with his invented words. Apparently “brillig” is four o’clock in the afternoon – the time when we to start to broil things for dinner. “Raths” are a type of badger with smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag. They mostly live on cheese.

Two of Carrolls’ fake words even escaped the confines of fiction and leapt straight into the dictionary. “Galumph” means to gallop in a triumphant manner and “chortle” is a mix of snorting and chuckling. I want to prescribe significantly more galumphing and chortling in all of our lives.

……..

 This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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