Three Cheers for Poetry and Made-Up Words

April 30, 2024

As we turn the page on April—National Poetry Month—I’ve been thinking about where we’d be without poets.
I know, I know. You’ll likely protest that no one actually reads poetry these days, but just hear me out.
Take the time to read a poem, any decent poem really, and you can’t help but notice how well poets use words. Through mere words, poets create images that stay in our brains for a lifetime. Through simile and metaphor, poets compare objects, people or events to something else. This not only calls attention to the object, person or event, it also helps us understand their nature more deeply and more concretely.
For a poet, “any word will do” absolutely does not hold. For a poet, every word must be considered, contemplated, tested, and turned over before it is deemed fit for the purpose.
And when a poet can’t find precisely the right word, they make one up.
One of the more famous maker-upper-of words was the Irish writer James Joyce. Although best known for his short stories and novels, Joyce also enjoyed early success as a poet—which might explain why he was so dexterous with the English language.
Here are just three of the many words Joyce coined in his classic novel Ulysses:

  • smilesmirk (noun): a cross between a genuine smile and a disdainful smirk  
  • poppysmic (adjective): describes the smacking sound of a person's lips
  • ringroundabout (verb): to completely surround something

Jump forward a century, and we find The New York Times encouraging young people to get in on the act.
For their “Invent a Word Challenge” in February 2022, The Times asked young people to “turn a critical eye on our lexicon and consider what might be missing.” Of the entries they received from over 500 students from all round the world, these are three of my favourites:  

  • oblivionaire (noun): A billionaire who chooses to be blind to the disparity and inequality that his or her wealth is creating. Gen Z’s furor over the so-called oblivionaires ignoring global crises is blowing up on social media, in a campaign being noticed by many global and political figures.
    -Rohana, Islamabad, Pakistan
  • skocean (noun): 1.When you cannot distinguish where the sky separates from the ocean because the shades of blue are so alike. 2. Used figuratively: When you can no longer see the difference between two things or people. I was alarmed to realize a skocean had occurred between me and my worst enemy and I was becoming what I thought I hated most.
    - Miia, Wilmington, N.C.
  • trendaissance (noun): The rebirth, or renaissance, of a cultural trend or meme after a period of unpopularity or dormancy. The grunge aesthetic is enjoying a trendaissance on social media right now.
    - Lindsey, Huntersville, NC

And finally, here are three more made up words I’ve come across recently:

  • procaffeinate (verb): to put off doing anything until you’ve had your first coffee of the day
  • chairdrobe (noun): a chair, usually in the corner of your bedroom, where you pile all your clothes
  • dotmocracy (noun): a method of voting using dot stickers to indicate preference for various options

What are the lessons here?
First, language evolves. Over time, both the meaning and usage of words can and do change. And that’s fine. It’s to be welcomed, even, as part of our ever-evolving world. Moreover, making words up is not some new, trendy, of-the-moment thing. There was Joyce in 1910, of course, and, in case you missed it, in the July 2023 issue of The Clarity Chronicles, I shared a bunch of words and phrases that Shakespeare introduced into the English language way back in the 1400s. 
Second, poetry is the perfect medium to show the value of words. Words have the power to convey, conjure and convince. But remember to treat your readers with respect. If you’re going to take the time to write something—and if you expect someone out there to read it and care—then it behooves you to choose your words carefully. Don’t throw them around haphazardly. It’s the right words in the right situation that make the difference.
Third, poetry is the epitome of brevity—and worth emulating for that reason alone. Time and attention are at such a premium these days. Faced with reams of headlines and information, we don’t tend to read so much as dart and dash, skip and skim. Brevity, concision, economy—whatever you want to call it—is crucial if we’re to have any hope of cutting through clutter and getting our ideas across effectively.
Finally, like the best writing, poems tell a story. Almost every poem is a mini story. The story is what invites the reader in; it establishes trust and common ground. As authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath point out in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, “The story's two-fold: It provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act)." Alas, so much business writing fails to capitalize on this power. To put it bluntly: business writers tend to focus on “selling” when what they should be doing is “telling.”
I wonder if it’s time for universities to add Poetry 101 to their business/marketing/MBS curriculums? At the very least, for the month of April.

Remember this: Read a poem. You’re sure to learn something about communication: how to write with concision, how to tell a story, and how to choose the right words—or make them up.

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