Liesl Schillinger’s Evolving English

By
Photography Brian Higbee

Published October 18, 2013

ABOVE: LIESL SCHILLINGER IN NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2013. PHOTO BY BRIAN HIGBEE.

Where do new words come from? How do they come to have regular play on our tongues? Many of the neologisms that have been added to our contemporary lexicon seem to have been invented either by teenagers or advertising firms—staycation, humble brag—and have their moment as a passing trend before fading off into vocabulary oblivion. Certainly social media has brought so many of these new entries into existence, while deleting older terms—mimeograph or Xerox or telex—as their namesake technologies disappear. Thankfully, one obscenely clever wordsmith has taken to creating her own ongoing dictionary of necessary words as her avocation. Writer, critic, translator, and literary impresario Liesl Schillinger began collecting her own coinages on a Tumblr account in 2009. Titled Wordbirds, the blog offered wicked, etymologically choice words that had yet to find voice or definition in Merriam-Webster, and, like any helpful dictionary, each neologism appeared with a helpful picture thanks to bird illustrations by Elizabeth Zechel. This month, Schillinger has compiled more than 200 of her best inventions in Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster). A few of my favorite include “telaversion (n.) a publically proclaimed hatred of (and ignorance of) television. Often a pose”; “undertain (v.) 1) to give low-key parties that offer no special food, drink, or décor. 2) to host fewer social events than you ought to”; and “parahaling (v.) things cigarette smokers do to replace the addictive aspects of smoking when they quit, like chewing Nicorette when they feel a craving, or compulsively updating their Facebook status.” Schillinger and I met at a diner in our shared East Village neighborhood, to discuss how she dreams new sense into language.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: How did this lexicography career take shape? Were you obsessed with dictionaries as a child?

SCHILLINGER: I’m definitely someone who’s intoxicated by language and by words, from as long as I can remember. My parents had me study French at the university when I was 10. I studied that for five years. And then German, starting when I was 13 or 14. When you’re studying languages—and I did Latin and Greek in high school—you can’t help noticing with a little thrill the things that pop up and link the languages; the roots, for example. I’ve always been interested not only in words but in the different emotions that a word will have in different languages. But this book didn’t come out of some great etymological obsession.

BOLLEN: But clearly, being multilingual helped in terms of knowing the right roots or cognates to build a word.

SCHILLINGER: First of all, a lot of my words are puns, but I don’t see most of them as being puns, foremost. That’s not the idea at all. I literally look at the tricks that make a word stick in the language and make it work and I’m trying to find whatever trick will work to make a word most memorable, make it roll off the tongue, and make people enjoy the word. I try to make the word I find not be too random. I want people to get it. “Oh! That’s why this was the word she’s using to describe this phenomenon.” People would write in and say, “I think you need a word for thus and such.” And then I would think—

BOLLEN: So on your Tumblr blog, you were crowd-sourcing for possible definitions?

SCHILLINGER: Yes. I started a Tumblr in March of 2009 called Wordbirds, after I’d been to a South By Southwest Interactive. I had a boyfriend who was completely obsessed with social media. I thought that was ridiculous because I grew up in old media. You know, I worked at The New Yorker, I write for The New York Times. I sort of thought social media was just kind of silly. I didn’t understand that it was rapidly becoming a major platform for journalism, creative writing, everything else. But at his insistence I went to South By Southwest Interactive and met David Karp and I sat in on a few panels with real journalists who were losing their minds because if they didn’t have a good Twitter relationship. They were losing their jobs basically, and they all realized, “Oh my God! We have to care about social media or we’re going to become archaic, and defunct, and irrelevant.” So that was on my mind. And I’ve often come up with new words, just for fun, like, when I want an expression, and a word that has been in my mind for ages was “cancellelation.” The original definition of “cancellelation” was the joy you feel when something is cancelled that you have never wanted to go to in the first place.

BOLLEN: I get cancellelation on a weekly basis.

SCHILLINGER: That and some other words had been burbling in my brain here and there. And the same boyfriend who was so obsessed with social media had been badgering me to start a blog. I hadn’t started a blog, and he was just like, “You write for The New York Times, what’s that? What else are you doing?” So I thought, “Okay, I need to start a blog.” And one night he was watching Family Guy and there was this incredibly annoying episode in which Peter is obsessed with the song by The Trashmen, “The Bird is the Word.” [singing] “Listen to the word, the bird is the word, bird bird bird, bird is the word, haven’t you heard…?” It just went on and on, and it just didn’t stop. I fled the living room where he was watching this torture, this torment, and went to Tumblr—now that I knew what it was—and put up the word “cancellelation” and found this funny photo online of a bird that looked completely blissed out and that’s how it started. I just kept on posting and I had so many words I had to exercise. I just kept on doing it and doing it. And in the About section I provided an email where people could send in phenomena for which they wanted a word created.

BOLLEN: Did any of the solicited definitions end up as words in the book?

SCHILLINGER: Yes. But it was really tricky because people would generally send in things that didn’t need to be a word. Like medical professionals would send me messages like, “Oh, in the hospital room we use a kind of stent which sometimes snaps…” They would want something over-specific. It’s not about something that could be a word, but about something that really should be. One of the things is, I’m forever getting so frustrated because I’ll go to answer the phone and I’ll realize that I’m answering the television remote. That’s what I call a Droidian slip. Everybody does things like that. I wanted words that feel relevant now.

BOLLEN: Do you think that the English language is limited in its current approved word options?

SCHILLINGER: I do think that more words should be waved into the dictionary than are. Back in 1991, I found out about this young lexicographer who was obsessive about word creation. His name was Jesse Sheidlower. I did a big profile of him in Newsday and he went on to write a book called The F Word, which is every good citation he could find for how different F words have been used—there are just thousands of them. Ande did a book called Word a Day. He writes about language and worked for decades as the head of the American OED, I believe. He was the one who talked to me about how a word can’t get into the dictionary until a lot of different authorities decide there have been adequate citations for it. It really does have to have lasting power. He showed me, for instance, how they eventually got “welfare queen” into the dictionary, which is a Reagan-era word. He was the one who oversaw the waving in of “thong” into the dictionary. He said it was really important in the definition of thong that “the buttocks must be exposed.” They recently let in “Tea Party.” I do think that there’s a heavy handful of words in my book that could make it into the dictionary. I think “conservaschism” is really good to describe the ongoing riff in Washington. The definition is “the early-21st-century political divide in the US Congress between moderate Republicans and far-right extremists who refuse compromise at any cost.”

BOLLEN: Did you usually think of the word first and find a definition, or notice a phenomena with no terms and go about building a word? I imagine you biking around the East Village searching for experiences to set to language.

SCHILLINGER: The wonderful thing about social media—and this is what makes me jealous of the people coming of age now as writers—is the second I think of something, I can post it straight onto my Tumblr as a draft. So I don’t forget anything. And I can go home and finalize it. I write down words as they come to me, but a good example of how a word gets minted is this summer someone on my Twitter emailed me. It was Kathryn Schulz, who’s a book critic for New York Magazine. She said, “We need a word for when you don’t know how to say something and you say it wrong and it’s embarrassing and you’ve read it—”

BOLLEN: Isn’t that a spoonerism?

SCHILLINGER: No, a spoonerism is when you say “Let me sew you to your sheet,” when you mean, “Show me to your seat.” That’s a language flip. The example is, when I was a girl, I read a lot of Dickens. I thought girls were always being misled [pronounced as mizzled]. I didn’t know it was “mis-led.” Because I’d only read it. And so, Kathryn wanted a word for that and I immediately thought, “Oh, let me go back to my Greek and Latin. What’s a good root for that? Nym. Like, homonym. And so I said “mumblenym.” And she’s like “Yes!” And so that became the word.

BOLLEN: Mumblenym is great. Do people ever offer you words?

SCHILLINGER: My dear friend Michael Schulman, the brilliant theater writer at The New Yorker, was playing Scrabble and he tried to claim that “fratois” was a word and I thought that it should be. It’s when 40-year-old guys talk like they’re in a Judd Apatow movie. “Hey dude!” “How’s it going, man!” “Bro!” It’s as if they were frat boys. Sometimes the word comes and I add the definition. Sometimes, when I was composing these over the course of three years on my Tumblr, I would literally come across a bird picture and laugh out loud, and see some human predicament in it, and turn that into a word. Mostly I would think of them myself. But my brother wants me to coin a word for that really weird thing people tend do where they turn the hot water on in the shower as if it needed a whole lot of time to warm up and then it ends up being five minutes and the water’s turned cold. And you’re like “What did I do?”

BOLLEN: That is a good word! I do that. It’s such a waste of water. There’s guilt involved with that experience too.

SCHILLINGER: Waterwaste? No, that’s too boring. Boil… Shower… I actually thought of a word and I wrote it down on my computer on a post-it. I’ll look at it. But if you’re saying that’s a valid word, then maybe I’ll do it.

BOLLEN: There are tons of words to play with. How did you divvy them up into the twelve sections in the book?

SCHILLINGER: My goal was to really do what Campbell’s Soup does, which is, they don’t put their soups in the store alphabetically, so you always keep on looking and then you suddenly realize “Oh! Maybe I wanted to try lobster bisque, which I didn’t think I did.” So this way it’s not boring A to Z. It’s A to Z within twelve chapters. So, it just means that you can pick up the book and find a word that you hadn’t noticed last time, so it’s never boring. The idea is to keep this on people’s bathroom reading shelves until the end of time.

BOLLEN: I think that’s what they did for the Vietnam Memorial wall. The name of the soldiers aren’t listed alphabetically by last name so it doesn’t seem like a wall of “Smiths.”

SCHILLINGERL: Oh, how sad.

BOLLEN: It makes each name seem more powerful, all its own.

SCHILLINGER: I like alphabetizing, but this is a humor book. It is seriously a lexicon. One word that I really love—I can’t tell you how many parties I’ve been to in the past eight years for friends who were laid off, I guess it’s six years, as their businesses closed. And every American probably knows the word “schadenfreude,” and knows that it means being happy when bad luck happens to someone else, but they don’t know that in German schade just actually means “too bad” or “misfortune.” You can add it to anything. So I created “schadenfrolic.” A schadenfrolic is a party people throw their friend when they get canned. And the picture I found that I had Elizabeth turn into art was a whole mess of vultures devouring an unfortunate elephant carcass.

BOLLEN: Elizabeth’s bird drawings are gorgeous.

SCHILLINGER: She is such a gifted artist, such a wonderful woman, and she had illustrated a children’s book written by Matthea Harvey who is from Wisconsin and has two sisters. I know her older sister Ellen. I was at a book party for a translator friend of mine and I happened to run into Matthea and told her about how I was dying to have a wonderful artist who could embody these beautiful birds that I wanted in a way that was kind of like Audubon meets a New Yorker cover cartoonist. And she said, “Speak of the devil, I know the most wonderful woman, she is so good, she is absolutely lovely, she will get this, see if she might do it.”

BOLLEN: Had she done birds before?

SCHILLINGER: Oh yes. She had been illustrating a bird dictionary. It was an alphabet where she was using a lot of birds. But she’s good at every animal, and people too. Elizabeth has just got a gift. And she did it for me for free. And I was doing it for free too. We were doing this completely out of our fascination with it. Much of the time, I would fine a bird for her. I always found a bird. I wanted as many different species as possible. I think we probably have an upwards of 150 distinct species of birds illustrating each of these words.

BOLLEN: Are you a bird person?

SCHILLINGER: Not at all. My grandmother was a great lover of birds and looking around my house you might think I was bird obsessive myself. When I was a child I owned two parakeets, but I hated them, and my cat would try to get at them, and I almost wished she would succeed. They just never stopped talking. My best friend had a parakeet named Hot Lips and I liked Hot Lips better because she laid eggs. We would just stare at her tail feathers for hours waiting to see if an egg would come out. She wouldn’t do it in front of us. I would love to have a canary now, but I have a cat. Also, I travel. You can find a cat sitter especially if you have a whole floor through in the East Village with a garden, but you can’t really find a cat sitter and a bird sitter. I’m not a zookeeper. I would love to go one morning to Central Park and bird watch.

BOLLEN: Have you ever tried to use your words in your everyday speech?

SCHILLINGER: Some of them, unfortunately, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. For instance, “anorexual” is something I’m confronted with all the time: people who are really scornful or contemptuous of people who are overweight or plump. So I use anorexual. I use “smoove.” A guy is a smoove, which I got from The Onion. I love to watch MSNBC and I love Chris Matthews. He’s always using words that have fallen out of the language that I love.

BOLLEN: Like what?

SCHILLINGER: Well, he’ll say stuff like, “Oh, that guy is a real headless nail!” That’s someone who is so deep in the grain of an organization that he can’t be gouged out of it.

BOLLEN: Brilliant.

SCHILLINGER: Yeah, so I put it on my blog thanks to him.

BOLLEN: What were some precedents to Wordbirds that you like?

SCHILLINGER: The thing that lead me to the book as an artifact that I wanted to create was in our family bathroom. We had, hanging on a ring, a book of American poems, and great poems, but we also had this hilarious book of Mother Goose rhymes. It’s Frenchified phony Mother Goose Rhymes with phony explication de text that was written 50 years ago but it still makes me laugh today. I’ve got Our Dumb Century by The Onion. And I’ve also got this thing called The Book of Liff by John Lloyd and Douglas Adams. They took absurd sounding names from around England and around the world and assigned meanings to the names. An “abinger” is someone who did all the washing up but leaves the grunge encrusted on pots and pans. A “nerkle” is someone who leaves their Christmas lights on yearlong. There was also something called Sniglets on HBO that recalled it.

BOLLEN: I remember that from when I was a kid. There was a “Sniglets” segment on Not Necessarily the News.

SCHILLINGER: I reordered the book off of eBay and most of them are just like “fungle-bunder-shoopey,” meaning, “when it rains on your mailbox.” It was just really more random than I remembered. They were just being too silly, they used really absurd sounds with few cognitive associations. This other bathroom book we had was The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. He was a critic and a journalist and a writer. He’s an American who was indignant at the mis-governance going in America when he was in his prime. He used his words to indict American politics and hypocrisy. And I’m trying to show the way we now live through this language.

BOLLEN: I don’t want you to disappear forever in Mexico like Bierce did. Do you think there will be a part two to Wordbirds?

SCHILLINGER: It depends whether people like part one. I had the idea that I would like to translate Wordbirds into French and German and it works really easily in German because they have so many compound words anyway. I’m continuing to generate new words. People don’t send me as many submissions as I would like. Actually, if someone gives me an idea they have a word for, that makes it so much easier, because once I’m sure that the thing is valid then I kind of flip the mental rolodex that I’ve got in my mind and come up with stuff. But someone was saying what if something horrible happens to you that’s absolutely shockingly bad that ends up being good for you and ends up being a bonus in your life? And I looked at her and said “I think that’s called life?” One thing I will say is that there was a word that I was going to illustrate but just couldn’t bear to, I don’t know if you know the word that’s been adopted by English that the Germans have, weltschmerz, which is just kind of sadness at the unfairness of the world, the things that can’t be fixed. It’s like sorrows of the young character, a gloomy depression at everything. Just like, “Woe is me, everything is unfair.” I coined a word “wildschmertz.” Which is the pain you feel when you hear about horrible things happening to animals and nature. But the picture I was going to have Elizabeth draw, which is those skeletons of baby birds whose mothers had fed them bottle caps, just made me cry every time I looked at it. So I thought, we just can’t do it.

WORDBIRDS: AN IRREVERANT LEXICON FOR THE 21ST CENTURY IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON LIESL SCHILLINGER, VISIT HER TUMBLR.