Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.
Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.
Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.
Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?
Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.
Except it isn’t.
Outside of English-learners’ classrooms and kindergartens, few everyday conversations call for new words, but even when they do, the chances of those words being truly apt and worthy of noting for posterity is rather small. Which leaves us with the poets and writers who fall into the second category, that of linguistically-conscious, word-sensitive people, whose greed for novel expression is only surpassed by the enormity of the challenge itself.
Of course, there are poets and writers, and there are poets and writers, and as I am only addressing the former—you, modest souls who stoop to reading my blog—I will dare to suggest that there is much to be gained from studying the melds and compounds of those greater than us, and then cautiously peppering our own efforts with creative inventions.
I will draw my lessons from three sources: W.B. Yeats’s Selected Poems (he was partial to a good compound word), E. E. Cummings’s 100 Selected Poems (he specialised in melds, compounds and words with everyotherkindofpunctation or lack thereof), and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (she likes her melds, but strays to the occasional compound). Together their output covers around one hundred years from late 19th to late 20th century, and the English-speaking regions on three continents (British Isles, US, New Zealand) .
To keep the posts to a reasonable length, I have also divided the types of neologisms into three categories to be discussed this week. According to usefulness and approachability, I’ll look into:
- the colours,
- the elements,
- the exotic.
So let’s consider colours. Blue-green is not the same as bluegreen, as Keri Hulme commented in the preface of her book.
I think the shape of words brings a response from the reader — a tiny, subconscious, unacknowledged but definite response. … “Bluegreen” is a meld, conveying a colour neither blue nor green but both: “blue-green” is a two-colour mix.
I tend to agree, although characterising the response in general terms may be difficult, if not impossible. How do you interpret either word?
To construct a new complex colour, one of the starting words ought to be colour-related and chosen, most commonly, from one of the following categories:
- hues (e.g. blue),
- tints, tones, shades (e.g. pale, grey, dark),
- coloured objects: metals, flowers that lend colours, precious stones etc (e.g. silver, hyacinth, ruby),
- words that mean colour (e.g. coloured).
The other starting word(s) can be more creative: another colour, a food item, a natural phenomenon. Almost anything works, as long as it has a distinct colour associated to it, or contributes a recognisable quality to the colour. The most complex example below is Cummings’s watersmooth-silver.
The following examples were culled from a larger selection. Some are not that original, but it’s helpful to see simpler variations too.
- Yeats: blue-green, stone-grey, milk-white asses
- Cummings: blackred rose, blueeyed body
- Hulme: bluegreen, seagreen, slateblue, slategrey, stonegreyblue
Tint, tone, shade
- Yeats: cloud-pale unicorns, curd-pale moon, death-pale hope, foam-pale distance, pearl-pale, straw-pale locks, wine-dark midnight
- Hulme: palecream
- Cummings: watersmooth-silver
- Hulme: rose-coral
- Yeats: slate-coloured
- Hulme: seashaded, honey-coloured
Colour pertains to sight, our primary sense, but a similar process can be repeated with the other senses, although I note those instances are harder to find and (I suppose) less useful. One classical example is bittersweet (taste, although in extended use).
Yeats has coined a few other ones I thought pretty: bee-loud glade (hearing), dew-cold lilies (touch), vinegar-heavy sponge (touch/smell). Hulme has sadsweet (taste and extended use) and seasounds (hearing).
The question remains: when should we reach for new words?
The answer is, sadly, still the one implied above: when no other existing colour fits the context, the vision, the mood, the rhythm or rhyme. Does that mean you have to know all of the two hundred thousand words English can provide you with, before you can judge the circumstances adequately?
Well, no, especially not when thinking about colours. Compared to the other two categories—elements and exotics—there is a relatively limited set of options for colours and senses. So you don’t have to be Yeats or Cummings or Hulme to feel whether an existing word will do or a triplemeld-compound is called for.
But feeling does have to be cultivated with practice and a lot of reading.
(And a lot more reading.)