1: How new words are born
As dictionary publishers never tire of reminding us, our language is growing. Not content with the million or so words they already have at their disposal, English speakers are adding new ones at the rate of around 1,000 a year. Recent dictionary debutants include blog, grok, crowdfunding, hackathon, airball, e-marketing, sudoku, twerk and Brexit.
But these represent just a sliver of the tip of the iceberg. According to Global Language Monitor, around 5,400 new words are created every year (Oxford Dictionaries Online, evidently using different criteria, reckon 1.8bn). It’s only the 1,000 or so deemed to be in sufficiently widespread use that make it into print. Who invents these words, and how? What rules govern their formation? And what determines whether they catch on?
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3: Sarah Palin’s English
In fact, a lot of what Sarah Palin says sounds like it’s been poorly translated from the Latin. With her “he who” and “one who,” she’d sound almost Ciceronian if it weren’t for the holes in her logic and the way those complicated sentences sometimes dribble off into vaguely sinister, possibly offensive nonsense.
See also The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth, an excellent book about turning the perfect English phrase.
4: Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20
“Infinite Jest” is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language. Not even the masters of the high/low rhetorical register go higher more panoramically or lower more exuberantly than Wallace — not Joyce, not Bellow, not Amis. Aphonia, erumpent, Eliotical, Nuckslaughter, phalluctomy! Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words — Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality. But nerdlinger word-mongering or “stunt-pilotry” (to use another Wallace phrase) can be an empty practice indeed. You need sentences to display-case the words, and here, too, “Infinite Jest” surpasses almost every novel written in the last century, maintaining a consistent and mind-boggling descriptive mastery, as when he portrays a sunset as “swollen and perfectly round, and large, radiating knives of light … It hung and trembled slightly like a viscous drop about to fall.”
5: The Fermi Paradox is not Fermi’s, and it is not a paradox
Two big ideas often come up in discussions about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. One is the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of civilizations in our Galaxy whose signals we might be able to detect—potentially thousands, according to plausible estimates. The other is the so-called Fermi paradox, which claims that we should see intelligent aliens here if they exist anywhere, because they would inevitably colonize the Galaxy by star travel—and since we don’t see any obvious signs of aliens here, searching for their signals is pointless.
The Drake Equation is perfectly genuine: it was created by astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake. The Fermi paradox, however, is a myth. It is named for the physicist Enrico Fermi—but Fermi never made such a claim.
6: From Berlin’s warehouses to London’s estates: how cities shape music scenes
Most modern music is an urban animal. Cities regularly birth music scenes, and artists often claim to be inspired by “the streets”, or by their neighbourhood. Yet the actual link between the music they make and the built environment where they do so is generally underplayed – spoken about as a matter of mood, or a source of lyrics. Music historians generally cite a critical mass of musicians as being crucial to the birth of a scene: classical composers in 18th century Vienna, for example, or modern metal bands in Helsinki. But the city itself? Well that’s mainly just credited as a convenient place for the musicians to hang out – though David Bowie’s residency in Berlin, for one, took that relationship to particularly intimate levels. But what if a city’s role isn’t quite so one-note?
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8: Winona, Forever
Like [Holden Caulfield], teen Ryder was the smart, ambivalent outsider searching for a place in a society that opposed those very things. Even into her twenties, in Reality Bites and Girl, Interrupted, she was more of a delayed adolescent than an adult. Ryder was unable to move on because of what moving on meant. And we weren’t either. Our Nonistalgia keeps her cloistered to this day in adolescence, alongside then-boyfriend Johnny Depp, before he cashed in on his eccentricity. But despite our attempts to resuscitate the past—Beetlejuice 2, Heathers: The Musical, Marc Jacobs—and as young as Ryder continues to look, she is no longer that ‘90s ingénue. In that sense she and Holden really are a team. “[Caulfield’s] central dilemma is that he wants to retain a child’s innocence, solipsism, and clarity,” wrote Harold Bloom, “but because of biology he must move into either adulthood or madness.”