Word crisis

By Sean Carroll | January 23, 2006 11:59 am

Forget about Peak Oil, here’s the real looming crisis: we’re running out of new words. Do you realize how hard it is, in our hyperactive age, to come up with a word that hasn’t already been invented for some purpose or another? Surely we’ve all had the experience of mistyping a word into Google and nevertheless hitting a handful of results. So as a little experiment, I made up some strings of letters that sounded like they could be words, checked in the dictionary that none of them actually exists as a conventional English word, and asked Google to go look for them. Here’s how many hits I got.

  • antrith (865)
  • splicky (230)
  • queigh (43)
  • nurdle (885)
  • tobnet (53)

“Splicky” is a pretty sweet-sounding word, actually; I’ll have to start dropping it into conversation. Admittedly, most non-words appear on Google as abbreviations or computer terms or simple nonsense, and furthermore it’s not that hard to invent random strings that don’t get any hits. Still, I’m worried. If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m pretty sure he’d feel that Google was cramping his style, coinage-wise.

  • Robert the Red


  • Elliot

    Isn’t a nurdle that little round piece of dark meat that comes of easily on a turkey on the bottom of the carcass?

    If it’s not called that it should be.


  • Elliot

    Sorry should have been “comes off easily.”


  • hack

    You’re not trying hard enough.

    I just typed in the word “bushissmart” into google and got zero results.

  • http://cinematicrain.com almostinfamous

    i present to you, The Meaning of Liff for your infinite pleasure

  • Douglas

    This is even stranger: http://www.quenchert.com

  • macho

    Wow. Your procrastination techniques are way more splicky than mine.

  • Scott O

    Your problem is that you are restricting yourself to English phonemes. As soon as you allow clicks, or maybe a voiced velar fricative, you’re back in business.

  • Sam Gralla

    queigh is your greatest creation.

  • NoJoy

    My mom once claimed (this claim is definitely unsubstantiated) that the term “nerd” comes from “nerdle”, and that a nerdle is a glob of toothpaste stuck to the sink. When I saw your word “nurdle” above, I decided to google “nerdle” and “toothpaste”. Apparently a “nerdle” is the amount of toothpaste you’re supposed to use, although whether that’s a pea-sized dollop or the length of the toothbrush is subject to debate.

  • citrine

    Well, given the propensity of the English language to borrow and adapt words from other tongues, I don’t think we are in imminent danger.

  • http://tolman.physics.brown.edu Robert McNees

    Nurdle is pretty close to nerdle, alternately nurtle, which may explain why it generated so many hits on google. As we all know, a nerdle is a nerd that resembles a turtle, due to an over-sized backpack.

  • http://catdynamics.blogspot.com Steinn Sigurdsson

    Makes Scrabble easier.

    Don’t Ad Agency people get paid large amounts for inventing realistic sounding fake words that can then be trademarked?

    Anyway, the solution is obvious. Add more letters!
    For an easy solution and a more euphonious phonetic language, adopt the Icelandic alphabet. Bonus: it works on your Mac.

    If in doubt, go back to your roots and a) compound words, it works for 200 million Germanic speakers and, b) you can never go wrong adding an “-ur” to your nouns for extra string parameters.

    Hm, that is an interesting question – how many long a word do we have to go to before the permitted number of “english phonetic” combinations of letters exceeds the number of possible models in the String Theory Landscape?

    Non-trivial, since vowel padding is required, which of course points out another solution…

    Damn: “stringur” gives 46 hits on Google,
    BUT “cosmicur” has NO hits on Google.

    There you go, one on the house.

  • http://www.buckwaasur.com buck

    queigh is your greatest creation

    cool word…but what do we want it to mean?

    queigh(v.): To weigh heavily on one’s conscience, causing much queasiness.

    Eg.: He spent many sleepless nights, queighed by the thought of having voted for Bush, voluntarily, the second time around. :-)

  • fh


  • Maynard Handley

    English is easily embiggened.

  • Sam Gralla

    I agree–it’s a perfectly cromulent language.

  • Chaz

    Hmm. Where I grew up, nurdle was an alternative name for shove ha’penny, the most tedious pub game ever played.

    queigh (v): To ponder the validity of a word before playing it in Scrabble: e.g “I queighed abit”, “Queigh me a wiver” “He always seems to queigh a lot”

  • John

    Absolutely not related to topic, but back in December we were promised another “Unsolicited advice” feature on choosing grad schools. I do not want to be too demanding, but I was really interested in that. Could you maybe bless us with it in the not too far-off future, please? Thanks in advance.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    John, we will definitely be telling you which graduate school to choose. But be patient — admissions committees haven’t even met yet! It would be splicky to post prematurely.

  • http://pappubahry.livejournal.com David Barry

    Jim Maxwell, a leading radio cricket commentator in Australia, uses the word ‘nurdle’ to describe a particular type of cricket shot. I don’t think this usage was invented by him, but I can’t remember who coined it.

  • LambchopofGod

    “Jim Maxwell, a leading radio cricket commentator in Australia, uses the word ‘nurdle’ to describe a particular type of cricket shot. I don’t think this usage was invented by him, but I can’t remember who coined it. ”

    Was he the guy [bloke?] who said, “The Commonwealth Games will be the biggest sporting event since 9/11.” ?

  • http://pappubahry.livejournal.com David Barry

    Was he the guy [bloke?] who said, “The Commonwealth Games will be the biggest sporting event since 9/11.” ?

    I certainly didn’t hear him say it, and it sounds unlike him.

  • Tom Renbarger

    #16 – “English is easily embiggened.”

    #17 – “I agree—it’s a perfectly cromulent language.”

    I think these descriptions are in play only if the situation can be described as a “crisitunity.” :-)

  • http://www.kaleberg.com Kaleberg

    Nurdle is in the OED. Its usage dates from 1985. It is a cricket term meaning to work the ball gently away or to accumulate runs slowly by working the ball gently away.

    My favorite word in the OED is smolet, because they have the word and its usage, but cannot find a definition.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Algorithmic information theory says that the amount of information in a string can be measured by the length of the shortest possible program that can produce this string as output. Unfortunately, for a sufficiently large string there is no way to know what is the shortest program that will output it.

    Still, it would be fun to try on some of those German or Icelandic words…

  • Elliot

    just had to….

    Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

    `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

    He took his vorpal sword in hand:
    Long time the manxome foe he sought —
    So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
    And stood awhile in thought.

    And, as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
    And burbled as it came!

    One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.

    “And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
    Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
    He chortled in his joy.

    `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

  • Dumb Biologist

    My family often went on a hikes when I was a little twerp (as opposed to a big one), and on one occasion my kid brother was breaking in a new pair of hiking boots. My dad asked how he liked them, and my brother replied “They’re good! They’ve got lots of gription!”

    (google reveals it’s even a band name!! Nothing new under the sun…)

  • Sam Gralla

    haha, John, yeah, you have to realize… they put the deadlines in december/january so that they have three months to procrastinate before spending a week looking at all 500 applications…

    Also: all this discussion of new words reminds me of a dream I once had in high school–to invent slang and have it catch on (spreading like wildfire across the country). My friend and I tried a few times, but it never worked because we just didn’t have contact with enough people (and perhaps weren’t persistent enough). But now in the internet, we at cosmicvariance have somewhat more reach. We could pick a definition for a word and try to use it as much as possible in our postings on other blogs… probably people will just ignore us but hey it might work and then we’d be famous! :)

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Since Jaberwocky has entered, I have a open door to introduce the translated poetry from Stanislaw Lem: Cyberiad. This amazing translation from Polish to English keeps Lem’s six lines of rhymes (the first piece with every word beginning with the letter ‘s’).

    Here we have two robots dueling in poetry. One is challenged to write a poem about a haircut, but it must be : lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, and have quiet heroism in the face of certain doom.

    Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
    She scissord short. Sorely shorn,
    Soon shackled slave, Samson signed,
    Silently scheming,
    Sightlessly seeking
    Some saveage, spectacular suicide.

    “Well what do you say to that?” asked Trurl, his arms folded proudly.

    But Klapaucius was already shouting:

    “Now all in g! A sonnet, trochaic hexameter, about an old cyclotron who kept sixteen artificial mistresses, blue and radioactive, had four wings, three purple pavilions, two lacquered chests, each containing exactly one thousand medallions bearing the likeness of Czar Murdicog the Headless…”

    “Grinding gleeful gears, Gerontogyron grabbed/Giggling gynecobalt-60 golems,” began the machine, but Trurl leaped to the console, shut off the power and turned, defending the machine with his body.

    “Enough!” he said, hoarse with indignation. “How dare you waste a great talent on such drivel? Either give it decent poems to write or I call the whole thing off!”

    “What, those aren’t decent poems?” protested Klapaucius.

    “Certainly not! I didn’t build a machine to solve ridiculous crossword puzzles! That’s hack work, not Great Art! Just give it a topic, any topic, as diffiicult as you like …”

    Klapaucius thought, and thought some more. Finally he nodded and said:

    “Very well. Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit.”

    “Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your senses?”


  • http://publicaddress.net russb

    “Nurdle” is a semi-accepted term to describe a style of shot or play by a batman in cricket, meaning nudging the ball around and into gaps (rather than striking lusty blows).

    eg: “he’s nurdling it around now, but he’ll have to start looking for the boundary soon”, or “and he nurdles it to short fine leg and brings up his fifty”.



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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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