Spelling your neologisms

Over on Facebook, Michael Thomas posted on my wall with two words he’d invented (claiming that his husband Aric said he had to tell me — I’m the go-to guy on language — about them):

Approxomathmatics: the study of close enough; see ‘government work’

Approxomattox — somewhere around Pennsylvania

I queried the spelling of the first, suggesting approxomathematics (since it preserves the spelling of one contributor to the portmanteau, mathematics), though on reflection I think approximathematics would be even better (since it preserves as much as possible of the other contributor, the adjective approximate).

Mike objected, asking if it was bad to misspell your own neologism, indeed if it was even possible.

Well, your neologism is as it is; if Mike had wanted to spell it aproxamathmatix, he’d be entitled. But anyone else can suggest improvements; the neologism isn’t literally his property. Once it’s out there, people can mess with it in all sorts of ways.

In any case, his first invention is a portmanteau of approximate and mathematics, which overlap in spelling in MAT (approxiMATe and MAThematics) and in pronunciation only in the /m/. The identity of the contributing words is maximally preserved in the spelling approximathematics, which I view as an improvement on Mike’s proposal (it even reproduces an E, from the end of the first contributor and the middle of the second).

The second invention is more complicated and, in my view, cleverer. The spelling manages to reproduce all of Appomattox (APPrOMATTOX) and almost all of approximate (APPROX-iMATe), but with the relevant parts of the second reordered in Approxomattox (APP…MAT…OX instead of APP…OX…MAT). Very satisfying. Though you do need to recall enough about the U.S. Civil War to realize that the famous Battle of Appomattox Court House was fought near Appomattox, in central Virginia, while the famous Battle of Gettysburg was fought in Gettysburg, in southern Pennsylvania. The two locations are sort of close to one another, though a chunk of Maryland intervenes between them.

3 Responses to “Spelling your neologisms”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Derek Wyckoff on Facebook:

    I’d be inclined to say that portmanteau neologisms ought to preserve as much of the original lexemes in their spelling as possible, since any deviation is going to potentially import additional meaning. For me, the presence of an ‘o’ rather than an ‘i’ in the position in question suggests the ‘o’ of the “X-o-mat” construction (e.g. “laundromat”)… which would imply a place where approximath is performed, perhaps by coin-operated devices; “approxomath” would then become approximath as conducted in such a place, as opposed to any other sort of approximath. Calculation by slot machine, in other words.

  2. Gary Says:

    Before reading the discussion, I saw the missing e and thought: Aha, splendid, the word displays its meaning through the approximately correct spelling of mathematics.

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