There are approximately 6,500 “living” languages. To survive, a language must lend to and borrow from other languages. The word email, for instance, is a relatively recent arrival. It started in English, then traveled to other living languages. The opposite of a living language, of course, is a dead language.

Those are the ones without contemporary native speakers, like Phoenician, Sumerian and Akkadian*. And there’s a third category: invented languages. Esperanto is one, as are those created by J.R.R. Tolkien for the Middle Earth inhabitants. Living languages also depend on invention. We’re always coming up with new words to describe new aspects of the universe: frenemies, crowdfunding, bromance.

This spring I am teaching a new course, “The Making of Dictionaries,” with Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski. This contest is from one of the course assignments.

Your Challenge:

Invent a new word that you deem necessary yet is nonexistent in the English language, and write its dictionary definition. Dictionaries have clear standards: your definition can be no longer than a few words, cannot repeat the word being defined, cannot be identical to that of another word (although it might be synonymous), and must be understandable to general readers from middle school onward.

Send your word and definition to Stavans will choose the winner. We’ll publish the winning entry in the next issue and send the winner an Amherst T-shirt.

*Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Akkadian

Last Quarter’s Answers

Mary Smyth O’Connor is the randomly selected winner of our “22 for ’22 in ’22” contest. O’Connor is a math teacher, member of the Smith class of 1984 and parent of a 2017 Amherst alum.

The contest, created by Roger Turton ’71, concerns “milestone” years—when one’s age matches one’s Amherst class year. (It assumes, for simplicity, that classmates turned 22 the year they graduated.) Turton’s solutions are below.

In the words of another correct entrant, Bob Conger ’75, “This puzzle gave me an excuse to reflect with a smile on the wonderful fun that I had in Professor Robert Breusch’s ‘Number Theory’ class. We didn’t solve problems like this one, but we gained a great appreciation for some of the seemingly magical rhythms of numbers, and discovered their relevance to real-world problems.”


Why is it that even though we graduated in consecutive years (’70 and ’71), these two “milestone” years (2018 and 2020) are two years apart?

The years of graduation for the classes of ’70 and ’71 are one year apart, but their ages attained in their “milestone” years are also one year apart, combining to make a difference of two years. An alternative explanation is that the class of ’71 started a year later than the class of ’70, and it also has to wait a year longer to reach its “milestone” year.


How does a similar explanation apply to the “milestone” years for the classes of ’82 and ’87?

Members of the class of ’82 will turn 82 in 2042 (after 60 years), and members of the class of ’87 will turn 87 in 2052 (after 65 years). Although they graduated five years apart, their milestone years are 10 years apart.


Which class will celebrate its “milestone” year in the same year as its 50th reunion?

Members of the class of ’72 will turn 72 in 2022, the same year as their 50th reunion. As a member of the class of ’71, I am so jealous that we missed this significant achievement by just one year!