New Word Order

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Some people collect coins in their spare time. Prof. Paul Lewis (English), however, coins phrases - and when he does, they often catch on.

Lewis' unofficial second career as a wordsmith once again received attention in the media recently, when New York Times columnist William Safire cited him as the originator of the term "schmooseoisie," which refers to people who make a living talking on radio and television shows. In addition, Lewis published a column in the Dec. 28 Boston Globe recounting a week he spent last fall inventing new words.

In the Globe piece, Lewis presented concoctions like "celebfatigue," which he described as a "stupor induced by excessive exposure . . . to the lives of the undeservedly famous," and "Pittwitted," a "bubble-headed frame of mind" resulting from an overabundance of stories about actor Brad Pitt.

While it remains to be seen whether his recent creations will capture lexicographers' fancies, Lewis already has enjoyed success as a neologist. Anne H. Soukhanov included "schmooseoisie" in her 1995 book Word Watch: The Stories Behind the Words of Our Lives , which describes the meaning and origin of new or altered words which have made a mark in popular culture. But Lewis is perhaps best known for introducing "Frankenfood," a catch-all term for genetically altered foods, in a 1992 letter to The New York Times .

Last month, Lewis discussed his new calling, fresh from a recent session in his linguistical laboratory which produced "likespeak" - "teen dialect based on the assumption that objects and concepts only approximate what they pretend to represent." While he is not about to give up his day job, Lewis does feel he has found a new outlet for his talents.

"There are those who do this sort of thing seriously, but for me it's just fun," Lewis said. "I stumbled into it with 'Frankenfood,' and it got me thinking about how new words are created. In working towards words like 'mall-minded' or 'Newtmare,' I am trying to catch a cultural wave."

As a scholar interested in the study of humor, Lewis says he sees some commonality between his past and current pursuits.

"In constructing a joke, you take unrelated images, concepts and ideas, and yoke them together," he explained. "This creates the potential for something incongruous and, therefore, humorous. By taking a piece of one word and a piece of another, I try to do something similar."

Lewis created "schmooseoisie," for example, by grafting the Yiddish word "schmooze" onto the French "bourgeoisie." The extent to which these words, and what they convey, have permeated contemporary American culture made them a natural fit, he said. The word can apply to the likes of Al Gore, David Gergen, Oprah Winfrey, teachers, therapists, or people who spend their lives phoning into talk shows.

Ironically, Lewis introduced the word during an interview with The Boston Globe about his "Frankenfood" creation, which had been inspired by a Times editorial concerning regulations on the marketing of genetically altered crops. Following his original letter to the Times , the word appeared in an environmental news service press release, Newsday , The Los Angeles Times , The Daily Telegraph of London and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" program.

The impact of "Frankenfood" and "schmooseoisie" started Lewis thinking about the process of inventing words. So, for a week last November, he devoted himself to coining phrases in response to current events and trends, such as the federal budget crisis. He came up with "Republicuts" as a term for the GOP proposals to trim social programs, for example, and "Democrits" to describe Democrats "deep in denial" over their past support for such programs.

Lewis found that composing words is akin to composing a piece of music, because "you have to pay attention to the rhythm of a word - the way it sounds is important, too." He also concluded that his creativity is usually triggered by his "dark side" - his words, he explained, tend most often to express "some form of alarm or disapproval."

Given that 1996 will feature a presidential election, a corresponding rise in the activity level of the schmooseoisie, and most likely another Brad Pitt movie or two, Lewis is confident he won't be lacking for material.

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