Nearly a year ago, Roberto De Vido sent me a link to an article from the Boston Globe about a new word – a rather fun and useful new word – and the bit of a kerfuffle it had created. It’s taken me a while to get to this suggestion – I have older ones still waiting too – but that gives the benefit of a year’s perspective and the chance to see the sequelae.
It all started with this comic from the great geek strip xkcd: xkcd.com/739/ . The strip (for those not disposed to click through) shows a Wikipedia page for the word malamanteau. The definition is “A malamanteau is a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism.” The caption is “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?”
But the word wasn’t in Wikipedia. Yet. (Actually, Wiktionary would be the more appropriate place for an entry on a word.) The word was not being used for the very first time in the strip, but nearly. So, naturally, as the Boston Globe article recounted, the word was quickly added to Urban Dictionary and Wordnik – and, of course, to Wikipedia. And just as quickly removed from Wikipedia. Though not without generating a lot of debate between Wikipedia editors, mainly about whether it was a real word and whether it was notable.
Now, notable – there’s a word Wikipedia really likes. One thing you need to be aware of with regard to Wikipedia editors is that they are not like editors of, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. They did not get the job due to expertise. Actually, it’s not a job at all; it’s a volunteer position. And anyone can join in the fray. But the ones who tend to prevail are the ones who put the most time and energy into it. Unfortunately, this means that it attracts a disproportionate portion of crankish no-lifers who want to be important and to set the rules in their own little corner of the universe. And the “information wants to be free” ethos that is the supposed founding spirit of Wikipedia is strongly subject to the itchy delete fingers of high-school-not-yet-grads and chronic career jumping beans, who, rather than letting information be free, will spike an article if, in their Napoleonic estimation, it’s not “notable”.
This is not, of course, to say that all Wikipedia editors and contributors are dweebs with an exaggerated sense of the ambit of their own knowledge. And indeed, Wikipedia is a very useful source of information, though one forgets at one’s peril that it cannot be assumed to be as reliable as expert-reviewed material. The point at hand here, though, is if you look for malamanteau in Wikipedia now, you will only find a reference to it in the article on xkcd – as “a stunt word.” You won’t find it at all on Wiktionary, which will instead direct you to malamante, which (perhaps fittingly) is Esperanto for “hatingly” or “hatefully”.
No fear if you want to find it elsewhere, though. It gets about 14,000 hits on Google. It’s still in Urban Dictionary, Wordnik, and assorted other sites that are not subject to the same ethos as Wikipedia. The question, though, is whether Wikipedia is right. Is it – like, for instance, floccinaucinihilipilification – a stunt word, one that is never really used in earnest for its denotative value? May one thereby floccinaucinihilipilificate it?
Well, before xkcd used it, it had already been used (not much, though) as a blend of malapropism and portmanteau. And it’s still useful – it’s by far the tidiest way to refer to words such as misunderstimate, refudiate, insinuendo, bewilderness, flustrated, ambiviolent, and misconscrewed (it up). So it has clear value as a word. It fills a gap neatly. It’s a nice malamute to add to the dog team on the linguistic sled of meaning. It’s reasonably mellifluous – nasals and a liquid, and an alternation between the lips and the tip of the tongue.
And it has a very good chance of sticking in the language due to the notoriety given it not just by the comic but, perhaps more importantly, by the insta-smite response it got on Wikipedia. In effect, by the very act of declaring the word not notable, those who did so helped to make it notable. In their flustrated attempts to refudiate it, they misunderstimated it; they misconscrewed it up and now they’re just in the bewilderness. And without even the mot juste.