Malamanteau, English, and the evolution of language

Is malamanteau a cromulent word?The headlineWikipedia goes crazy after XKCD has a strip that ‘invents’ a new word” on social news site Reddit screamed at me this morning. I just knew there was going to be something interesting to come from this.

As it turns out, XKCD, a geek-favorite Web comic, posted a comic today about Wikipedia’s seemingly strong affection for certain words, using the fake word “malamanteau” as a target. Even more enlightening is the title text that appears when the mouse pointer is hovered over it: “The article has twenty-three citations, one of which is an obscure manuscript from the 1490’s and the other twenty-two are arguments on LanguageLog.”

Of course, this led to a storm of edits to the “malamanteau” entry, highlighted by the targeting of the Wikipedia article for deletion. Afterwards, the “Talk” page for the entry erupted with discussion. ( makes a decent effort of defining the word.) Writers, linguists, and non-linguists alike have commented on the word and its associated Wikipedia entry, debating if a fake word is worthy of an entry on the site.

This leads me to ask this: If enough people use a “fake” word, does it become real?

The creation of new words, when logical, is a perfectly acceptable extension of our human nature. Such creations are typically a result of one or more humans trying to express a complex idea in a simple way or express an old thought in a new way. This seems normal, especially if you believe in the human theory of adaptation or evolution. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines the transitive verb “adapt” as “to make fit (as for a specific or new use or situation) often by modification.” When applied to languages, suddenly the creation of new words makes much more sense.

But there are other complex reasons new words are being created. “The Internet, global commerce and global travel have accelerated the trend by putting English in contact with many other linguistic groups,” said CNN journalist John D. Sutter in a news article last June.

For the article, Sutter interviewed Paul J.J. Payack, president and lead word analyst for the Global Language Monitor. Payack was interviewed in part for the live ticker that appeared on the site in preparation for the one millionth word set to appear in the English language.

The ticker wasn’t to be taken literally, however, said Payack. “It’s always an estimation,” he told CNN. “It’s like the height of Mount Everest is an estimation. The height of Mount Everest has changed five times in my lifetime because as we get better tools, the estimates get better.” (Of course, it should also be considered that the Earth’s crust is moving and erosion is occurring as time progresses, adding to the flux of Everest’s height.)

But as people continue to adapt their languages to their rapidly changing social circumstances, there are always detractors and purists to argue against the creation and/or overuse of new words. Take for example Bill Rabe, former Lake Superior State University Public Relations Director, who gathered with friends on New Year’s Eve and created the “word banishment” list in 1975. The list has been going since, with new words worthy of scorn being black listed every year. The 2010 LSSU list includes words like “sexting,” the act of sending sexually-related material to someone via text messaging, and “chillax,” a portmanteau of the words “chill” and “relax.”

“Any dangerous new trend that also happens to have a clever mash-up of words, involves teens, and gets television talk show hosts interested must be banished,” said contributor Ishmael Daro of the banished word “sexting.”

Even humor magazine Cracked gets into the act with its 2009 15 words you won’t believe they added to the dictionary. “The Oxford English Dictionary is constantly updating, adding new words to reflect the vibrant changes in language and culture,” says Cracked writer Darach McGarrigle. “Of course, that also means that as said culture spirals toward a frightening and retarded oblivion, the good people at Oxford have to be there to chronicle it.”

But are newly-created words worthy of such scorn? Does “malamanteau” have a practical, modern usage in any evolving language? While writers, editors, and teachers all must deal with a morphing language in the scope of their jobs, all must realize that language is an extension of humanity and the phenomena associated with it. As political and social situations change, so too does the language used to describe those changing situations. If a “fake” word, adapted to describe a new social situation, has a practical use, then is it really fake?

3 Comments on “Malamanteau, English, and the evolution of language

  1. Great article! I saw the XKCD strip and chuckled, but never would have imagined that it would cause such a stir. People often don’t want to accept that language is a living, ever evolving thing. I think “sexting” is pretty ridiculous. That’s a joke, not a word. Let’s not forget, however, that “text” as a verb has only been with us, what, maybe 10 or 15 years? I was a late adopter on the cell phone craze, so I’m not sure. It hasn’t been in use that long though. People create new words all the time. Some are ephemeral, while others find wide-spread usage. It is truly an evolutionary process. Mutations occur. Some flourish, while others die. At what point does a word deserve a Wikipedia article? Well, that can, of course, be debated. Regardless, though, to halt the development of language would be to stifle the ingenuity of the human spirit. New situations demand new words, and new words there shall be.

    • “New situations demand new words, and new words there shall be.” That is indeed the idea. Linguists and Average Joe’s alike can argue about what constitutes a valid word. But in the end, we’re trying to communicate ideas, often as efficiently as possible. While “sexting” may be ridiculous in spirit, it’s quicker to say “She got into trouble at school for sexting” than “She got into trouble at school for sending naked pictures of herself over her cell phone’s text messaging system.” I have absolutely no problem with that kind of evolution of language.

      Thanks for reading, Geoff.

    • Geoff, how can you reject “sexting”, which is now widely used as a word without self-consciousness and a desire to “spread the new word”, while apparently defending “malamanteau” which is purely a joke word that nobody has used properly in a sentence with its intended meaning.

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