By Ilan Stavans, the Lewis Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture
Amherst isn’t a verb, but if it were, this would be the perfect opportunity to use it: Almost all of the entries to my “invent a new word” contest (Winter 2020) are stellar examples of the act and art of amhersting, the capacity to look at the world anew, displaying endless curiosity while using one’s intellect in resourceful ways.
Feeling blëch, out of love and full of striends? Convinced that our times are a sign of democritude, in which everything looks like scrud? I have a solution for you: invent a verbno (from the Latin verbum novum). In fact, create words left and right. You might meamble and even find out you’re a worryizer. But don’t panic: reality is always about words, as much about how we shape them as about how they shape us.
Seriously, the three winners of my contest are: innerstand (from Elliott Isenberg ’66) interrobrag (from Gordon Bourjaily ’11) and nagivator (from Doris and Alan Blum ’69).
Why do we say understand to describe the perception of intent? Why not innerstand, since knowledge happens inside us, not under us?
In this moment of intense polarization, ideological as well as emotional, people don’t just ask questions but interrobrag about who they are.
And nagivator c’est moi. As Alison, my wife, who is an excellent driver, will rightfully attest, every time I’m in the co-pilot seat (as I was, serendipitously, when she and I discussed each of these two dozen contest submissions), I’m a nuisance, using language to suggest how often she should brake, how wide her left turns are and other annoyances. Yes, the word nagivator, upon arrival, fittingly described an action the two of us know too well yet regularly take too many words to summarize.
In his illustrious A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), my hero Samuel Johnson defined lexicographer as “a harmless drudge.” He might have been right but, wow, isn’t it fun to look at words upside down and inside out, especially when they are newly born?
Isenberg, Bourjaily and the Blums will receive Amherst T-shirts.
Blëch. A feeling of being morose, down in the dumps, uninspired. An atmosphere of lachrymosity, gloom, disquietude. (Stanley Ross ’77)
Striend. A person who was once a friend, but over time, has become a stranger. (Bonnie Franz ’88)
Democritude. The quality or state of decline and failure of democratic institutions and states due to the gradual loss of an educated, informed and engaged citizenry and the concurrent rise of political extremism, ethnic nationalism and anti-elite populism, and abetted by the corrupting influence of big money in politics and by the rise of misinformation and disinformation spread by unregulated social media. (Alex Meerovich ’87)
Scrud. A mix of snow and ice, topped with dirt, that forms on roadsides as winter turns to spring. (Marie Christine Russell)
Verbno. A new word. A word that is necessary but nonexistent. Derived from the Latin verbum novum, meaning new word. An example of a verbno is inchstone. If a milestone is a significant event in one’s life, an inchstone is an insignificant one. (Bob Leeder ’61)
Meamble. A combination of meander and amble. Used to describe walking at a slow pace to nowhere in particular. (Lou Silverman ’81)
Worryizer. One who invents topics or instances of which to be concerned. (Russell Ryan ’71)
Innerstand. To understand intuitively rather than with the mind or ego; not to comprehend from “under,” but to comprehend from “within.” (Elliott Isenberg ’66)
Interrobrag. A question asked with the ulterior motive of impressing others. The act of asking such a question. To ask a question with the ulterior motive of impressing others. (Gordon Bourjaily ’11)
Nagivator. The person in the passenger seat, usually a significant other in an enduring relationship—or an extremely brief one. See also nagivate: To stress an enduring relationship to the breaking point from the passenger seat. (Doris and Alan Blum ’69)