I think I have always been attracted to neologisms -coining new words. As I aged, that ability came in handy whenever I forgot the correct word to use. Of course, people thought I was cleverly using metaphors, and not wishing to disavow their perspicacity, I would usually agree. No sense making them lose face. At any rate, as has recently come to light, I may have occasionally slipped into inadvertent gibberish in hopes of finishing the sentence. Sometimes it’s hard to know if I’ve crossed a boundary.

I have to admit that until fairly recently, I used words as profligately as the coins I have thrown into fountains along the way -even if they were not words I tossed. Anyway, an essay by Jenni Nuttall, a lecturer in English at Exeter College, Oxford, helped to set me on the right path.

‘Gibberish – language that cannot be understood – is not quite the same as nonsense. In nonsense writing, we read individual words but can’t parse them into any meaning that makes sense according to conventional expectations.’ A good example, is Noam Chomsky’s ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,’ -semantically meaningless, and yet with normal words and correct syntax.

‘The term ‘gibberish’ is mostly imposed unfairly on others, a quick-and-easy way to express prejudice and to downplay the language of others as mere noise. Gibberish is, however, sometimes created voluntarily for benign purposes… Some Old English medical charms, preserved in a manuscript written around the year 1000 CE, have passages of gibberish mixed up with words from Old Irish, Latin, Greek or Hebrew… these sounds and syllables that refuse to match up to anything recognisable in Old English or any other language might have persuaded those who heard them that this charm was sure to work.’

And yet, it’s not just in magical charms that gibberish surfaces. ‘In jazz, the human voice competes with other instruments in improvised sections, and it is much easier to improvise in gibberish than with real lyrics. Similarly, swaying and singing to lull a fractious baby to sleep when you are so tired you can hardly think straight creates the perfect conditions for gibberish to emerge. Words aren’t important to a pre-verbal infant: what has mattered since time immemorial is voice-made music.’ In fact, in all likelihood the ‘word ‘lullaby’ comes from a combination of two of these early English vocables: lulla-lulla and bi-bi.

‘Once we have acquired our language as children, you would think that babbling and gibbering would cease, but there are weak points where gibberish can easily break through. Singing seems to teeter on the edge of gibberish, enticing us to switch from words to noises. When we forget the lyrics of a song, we hum and la and ooo and di-dah. Or, if there are no words, the human voice might join in as an instrument: tee-tumtaa-raa. Singing often stretches out words into their component syllables, tempting us to lose track altogether of the boundaries of words… These fragments of sung gibberish are called ‘non-lexical vocables’ -sounds we can vocalise but that aren’t words.’

It occurred to me that many of the neologisms I’d invented over the years had been pearls littered along the way, so I began to pay attention to the words -or at least the sounds- others were using. For example, the 1960ies song ‘Duke of Earl’ by Gene Chandler -the only thing I seem to remember from it was the ‘Duke, duke, duke, duke of Earl’ part. It sometimes still breaks out at a party, and everybody knows the duke part; nobody remembers much else. I wondered if ‘Duke’ had become the ‘dook’ of gibberish?

So, could anything become gibberish -or vice versa? Were my clever neologisms merely derivative rather than seminal as I had hoped? It was a depressing thought that wit could be confused with fatuous absurdities. Not only that, it would suggest that whatever meaning I had intended, was very likely missed. Still, it’s context that creates meaning, isn’t it?

I decided to experiment at a Food Court. Ideally, I would ordinarily start with friends, but at my age, they’re beginning to time out. In a way, though, strangers are more suitable for linguistic dabbles because I’m unlikely to run into them again so I have little to lose. Any embarrassment is muted when it becomes obvious that they don’t really care.

Asking directions seemed like a good way to start. Nowadays, you have to be careful not to stand too close, however -social distancing is still expected. I saw a middle-aged woman with cement coloured hair standing with her obviously teenaged daughter at the entrance to our local mall’s Court -waiting for a table to clear, I suppose. The daughter was surfing through her phone while the mother seemed to be surfing over the thin current of heads. Perfect.

“Excuse me,” I ventured, standing the appropriate 2 metres away from them. “Do you know where Strackle is?” I kept my face looking earnest, but hopeful.

The mother looked at me; the daughter didn’t bother. “The what?” she answered after painting my clothes with her eyes.

“Strackle,” I answered, smiling innocently.

Her forehead wrinkled in what I took to be a sincere effort to recognize the word. “I… I’m not sure I understand.” She shifted uneasily from foot to foot, as if that might jiggle something inside her that might know. “What’s a Strackle?” -she said the word slowly and carefully to make sure she’d heard correctly. “Is it a store…?”

I tried to look a little embarrassed, and lowered my eyes to stare at the floor near her feet. I hadn’t noticed them before, actually. Her shoes were pointed like metal chisels and seemed to be supported on nail-like pillars. I began to wonder about choosing her. “No, no,” I answered, shaking my head a little hesitantly. “Sorry… My English…”

Her face immediately softened, and she tried to help. “What’s… what do they sell in the Strackle?” she said slowly, enunciating each syllable as if I were deaf.

I made a gesture like I was washing my hands. “Not buy… Do…”

A flood of embarrassment washed over her face. “Do you mean ‘bathroom’?”

I pretended to be relieved that we’d finally been able to communicate. “Yes, yes. I need Strackle…”

Suddenly the daughter looked up from her phone and stabbed me with a horrified grimace on her face. “He’s weird, mom!” she whispered and grabbed her hand to drag her away.

And yet, as the two of them hurried away, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d stumbled onto something really profound: gibberish can be made to mean something. Of course, then it might not be gibberish, anymore… Damn!

Maybe I should stick with my standard neologisms -they were at least clever.


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