Need a New Word? Ask a 5-Year-Old.

When my daughter was very young, she had no inhibitions about bending language to her will. She made up words when she found English lacking. Some of those words have become part of our family’s lexicon.

Inventing English language words

In particular, Katie knew that she was not to use “bad words” to express negative feelings like anger or frustration. Since the established words were out, Katie created her own. In fact, she created an adaptable four-part term: “ishtapoofossee.” When faced with a minor disappointment, Katie would mutter “isht.” When, say, her older brother was particularly annoying, the expression became the more intense “ishta.” More dramatically upsetting events elicited the powerful “ishtapoo!” Reserved for the most enraging situations–perhaps the weekly struggle to brush her hair for church–brought out the rare and forceful “ishtapoofossee!” The tone and context of these words made their meanings perfectly clear, even though they were Katie’s inventions.

She created an adaptable four-part word: “ishtapoofossee.” When faced with a minor disappointment, Katie would mutter “isht.” When, say, her older brother was particularly annoying, the word became the more intense “ishta.” More dramatically upsetting events elicited the powerful “ishtapoo!” Reserved for the most enraging situations–perhaps the weekly struggle to brush her hair for church–brought out the rare and forceful “ishtapoofossee!” The tone and context of these phrases made their meanings perfectly clear, even though they were Katie’s inventions.

Spreading the use of new English language words

As a middle school English teacher, I was sometimes frustrated. I often needed powerful language to express my occasional irritation, and I used Katie’s flexible term. Eventually, each class would ask what those expressions meant. I would write each part of the compound term on the board. Then, I would ask my students to imagine what remark it could be replaced with. They were always delighted to point out that “isht” was an anagram for a more common word of the same meaning; however, that was just a convenient coincidence. As I added each part of the word, I asked the kids not to say their guesses aloud. They realized that the full “ishtapoofossee” was a substitute for that word-that-shall-not-be-uttered in the presence of adult authority.

The explanation became an opening for a discussion about how words acquire meaning and how context can define unfamiliar vocabulary. The point, of course, is that new words gain meaning when people agree on and understand their usage. To me, that’s part of the magic of language.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: