Friday, April 21, 2006


Warning - extreme pretentiousness follows:

When I was in the fifth form, I thought it would be fun to invent a new word and see how quickly it would spread round the school. As you can see, my notion of fun was a bit different from that of most of my schoolmates, who generally preferred drinking gin in the woods, sniffing tippex thinners in bed and smoking out of the dormitory window. (Not all at the same time).

In your classic American High School Movie terms, my level of popularity and influence at school was roughly on a par with the nerdy girl in Heathers who Winona Ryder plays croquet with after everyone else is dead, so why I thought anyone would adopt my new word is beyond me. But I gave it a go.

My chosen word was "shmick", which sounds to me now like it should mean something in Yiddish (anyone?) but at the time I 'coined' it, it was supposed to mean 'arty and pretentious'. My dissemination strategy involved saying 'shmick' at seemingly appropriate junctures and within earshot of powerful and influential people, and writing it on as many things as possible, the better to impress it into the minds of my schoolmates.

Despite all my best efforts, I only observed the word 'shmick' being uttered once in the wild, and by this time it had assumed a secondary connotation of 'yuk, that's disgusting'. Frankly I was very disappointed with the whole outcome, and moved swiftly on to a new endeavour, which was probably writing an Abstract Expressionist play about Matt Johnson out of The The being sick on a cross-channel ferry.

I'd like to say that now I'm a functioning adult I'm not nearly as tiresome as the teenage me, but actually I am. I know this because of the unholy sense of excitement I got when I realised the terrible - and seemingly largely untapped - power of the Technorati Tags for tracking the invention and uptake of new words.

Tagging lets you summarise what your blog post is about in a few keywords, so that other people can find your posts when they search on those words. Not many people seem to be using tags yet, which is possibly why, in the entire history of blogging, only me and an Australian chap called Cam Pegg have ever used the term 'mashed potato' to tag a blog post. On the other hand, it could just be that no one else blogs about mashed potato quite as much as me and my new potato purée-loving friend Cam.

But when *everyone* starts using tags, I'm quite looking forward to the merry hell that will break out as irritating people like me attempt to coin and spread new words just for the personal glory of inventing one that sticks.

In the 'real' world, it's hard to establish who first coined a given word or phrase. There has to be written evidence, and the written evidence has to be dated, and attributable to a specific individual. But in blogworld, everything is written, dated and attributable to a specific individual. So if you've got a fancy new word or phrase, this is probably the best place to 'claim' it. And if you write it as a tag, all you need to do is click on it to see a) if anyone's used it before, and b) how many other people have used it since.

Ooh, the power!

Last week, for example, the Economist invented the word 'womenomics'. Eight days later, is the word 'womenomics' catching on? Well, sort of, but I just love how easy it is to find out.

Taxonomy fans beware: it's going to get very, very messy.

UPDATE: And as if to prove some kind of point, my own 'neology' tag brought me to this post, which explains it all much better, and with fewer references to mashed potato.

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Tim Footman said...

Schmick: (Yiddish) An Irish schmuck.

"That bloke out of the Corrs. What a schmick, already."

taigathefox said...

Urban Dictionary defines your shmick:
1. glamourous / to dress up
"We're going out soon - time to go get schmicko!"

2. (adj.) a person; usually of low intelligence who wears sportwear and acts in a threatening manner.
" Step back you Shmick! I've got mace!"

patroclus said...

Thanks Taiga, that second one could be useful in the event of an unforeseen attack by that bloke out of the Corrs.

When Neglected Male Members Of An Otherwise All Female Pop Band Attack!

Smat said...

but you're forgetting your Amazing Power to Invent Nicknames without Anyone Realising It Was You (ref: Scheissbraun the German teacher)

patroclus said...

Smat, we were very good at that, weren't we? I'll never forget The Spam Dragon, The Haystack, The Duster or the legendary Dog Brown's Sister's Brother, whoever he was.

It's a habit I sadly haven't grown out of, either.

surly girl said...

am i alone in finding the tag thing slightly sinister?


thought so.

patroclus said...

Oo, sinister in what way?

LC said...

Not convinced by tags - aren't they massively open to abuse? Metatags in HTML pages were used for the same purpose, but now they're largely ignored by search engines because people started stuffing completely irrelevant keywords in them to draw lots of traffic into their sites.

poppy said...

creating new words and spreading them around school? i think i may do this. i've always wanted to do something rebellious.

patroclus said...

LC: I may just have got overexcited again there. We'll see. I like the tag thing at the moment - I've found all kinds of interesting posts through it, which I wouldn't otherwise have found.

And I probably was advocating some kind of abuse. But surely the test of any system is in how well it copes with abuse? Technologies get abused ('subverted' may be a more interesting way of looking at it) and that's how they evolve. So it'll be interesting to see how tagging gets subverted, and how it evolves from that.

In the meantime, I'm off to invent new words. Well actually, I'm off to see Calexico again.

Ceridwen Devi said...

Johann Schmick was a 19th century German bridge builder. 1833-1899

Merkin said...

It's difficult though. Someone once told me that the word "Quiz" was invented as a bet between 2 Edinburgh medical students as to who could invent a word. So one went round the city in the middle of a night writing "QUIZ?" in chalk on every door they could.

The next day, everyone was talking about what it meant, and thus was a new word born. Or is this an urban myth?

patroclus said...

I don't know anything about that, but... Merkin! You're back! Hurrah! And how the devil are you?

patroclus said... has this to say:

Word History: The origins of the word quiz are as difficult to pin down as the answers to some quizzes. We can say that its first recorded sense has to do with people, not tests. The term, first recorded in 1782, meant “an odd or eccentric person.” From the noun in this sense came a verb meaning “to make sport or fun of” and “to regard mockingly.” In English dialects and probably in American English the verb quiz acquired senses relating to interrogation and questioning. This presumably occurred because quiz was associated with question, inquisitive, or perhaps the English dialect verb quiset, “to question” (probably itself short for obsolete inquisite, “to investigate”). From this new area of meaning came the noun and verb senses all too familiar to students. The second recorded instance of the noun sense occurs in the writings of no less an educator than William James, who in a December 26, 1867, letter proffers the hope that “perhaps giving ‘quizzes’ in anatomy and physiology... may help along.”

DavetheF said...

I think I've just figured out how to increase the minuscule traffic on my blog. I'll just tag stuff "unusual sex" "cat secrets" "nude gardening" and so on. The kind of stuff people seem to be looking for on Google. BTW if you Google "Congregation Vapours" MY BLOG is NO 1 of 10,000! Above Shakespeare!

patroclus said...

Dave the Fox - bigger than Shakespeare! Congratulations!

You could try that thing with the tags, but the difference between the technorati tags and the metatags that LC was talking about is that the technorati ones are visible to the naked eye, so the game would be up pretty quickly...

...Also (she says, warming to theme), I *think* there might be a difference between using tags in a commercial environment, where the aim is to drive traffic to a web site in order to make money, and in a (largely) non-commercial environment like blogging. Tags *seem* to be working out well on places like Flickr and, where people are generally using them to be helpful to other people searching for things.

Of course there's always a minority of wags who'll tag Einstuerzende Neubauten as 'easy listening' in order to frighten unsuspecting Coldplay fans, but where would we be without the anarchists, eh?