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Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
Chris Matthews: Inspiring language learners at home and abroad
By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • April 22, 2024
The best cafés to caffeinate and cram for finals
By Irene Castillo, Senior Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

Opinion | Language is a free-for-all and you should make up more words

Opinion+%7C+Language+is+a+free-for-all+and+you+should+make+up+more+words
Fikayomi Olagbami | Staff Illustrator

If you’re like me or any other member of the human population, you’ve probably said a word incorrectly at some point in your life. Maybe you wrote “conservativism” instead of “conservatism” in an essay or pronounced aspartame like it was the name of a Greek philosopher. 

We all know the feeling — the one you get after you say “octopi” and some forehead materializes beside you to inform you that the plural is actually “octopodes” because “octopus” originally comes from the Greek “oktōpous” and should therefore have a Greek suffix. It’s a mixed feeling of embarrassment about misspeaking and reassurance that you made the right call not inviting him to your party on Saturday.

But you shouldn’t feel embarrassed. Not only did you not misspeak — “octopi” and “octopuses” are generally more accepted by modern dictionaries anyway — but it wouldn’t really have mattered if you did. Your friends knew what you meant, so what’s the big deal?

Language exists to serve a function, specifically the function of transmitting information from one person to another. If your intended audience understands the words coming out of your mouth, you have “performed language” correctly. 

There’s very little constraint on what you can say to get whatever point you’re making across because most people generally assume that the things you say make sense. You’ve made coherent statements your whole life, so they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

This grants you a lot of freedom as far as description is concerned. Sure, you can say, “I had to do the worst chores during my shift at work,” but it might more accurately describe your feelings about it to say, “They really had me licking up the bile tonight.” 

Your friends, familiar with U.S. labor laws, know you weren’t actually licking up digestive fluid, but they also know you aren’t simply lying to them. They must assume that you’re speaking figuratively, even though “licking up the bile” is not exactly a common expression. Most would agree that “licking up bile” sounds like a very unpleasant experience, so they can deduce that you had a very unpleasant shift — but perhaps in a more visceral way than if you had simply told them, “It was unpleasant.”

This is the basic reasoning for most metaphors in literature and idioms in our everyday interactions, but it’s not just authors and old playwrights who can compare thee to a summer’s day. New idioms enter our vernacular every decade, and you have the freedom to make them up yourself. If Tom Wolfe could popularize “screw the pooch” in the ‘70s, there are clearly no limits to what people will say in casual conversation.

But the magic of language doesn’t stop at figurative expressions. Words themselves are your clay to mold to your whims. 

Humans understand the English language compositionally. It would be too difficult to remember every single word in the dictionary individually, so we just remember the building blocks. For example, we don’t store the meaning of “quickly” in our heads — we store the meaning of “quick” and the suffix, “-ly.” This way, we don’t need to have a brand new word to remember for every adverb because all we have to do is remember one suffix.

These building blocks of language grant us immense freedom for creation. “Depedestrianize” is not in the dictionary, but it works perfectly as a word because everyone can understand its composition — they know the meaning of “pedestrian” and the functions of its prefix, “de-” and suffix, “-ize.” Putting its components together, we end up with a word that means something along the lines of “to limit or prohibit the walkability of a given area.” 

Creating “new” words in this way greatly facilitates your ability to communicate — suddenly you can reduce a concept that may have taken a full clause to explain down to a single word. And for those worried that the octopodes airhead from earlier might reappear, you can find some solace in the fact that most people will have no idea which words you made up. They understand what it means, so why wouldn’t it be in the dictionary?

The fun — you’re having fun, right? — doesn’t stop there. Even compositionality isn’t the law of the linguistic land, as humans also have strong mental associations with certain sounds. The kiki/bouba effect illustrates the way humans match phonemes like “b,” “u” and “m” with round, blobular shapes, while sounds like “k” and “t” we associate with sharp, spiky shapes.

These principles help a lot with description and onomatopoeia — two areas of your vocabulary begging for new additions. Conjure up whatever combination of letters you need to adequately describe the texture, sound or appearance of something you experienced earlier in the day. There’s not a perfect word for everything, so it’s up to you to fill that void.

Language is your playground, not your prison, and you shouldn’t feel confined by our preconceived notions of what is or isn’t a word canonized by Merriam-Webster. If you feel you need a new term to express yourself to the fullest extent, create it yourself — your audience might understand you far better than they ever could without it.

Thomas Riley made up the word “blobular.” If you think that word is stupid, let them know at [email protected]   

About the Contributor
Thomas Riley, Opinions Editor
Thomas Riley is a junior double major in Politics and Philosophy and English Writing. They enjoy all things comedy and love to satirize current events and student life in their own writing. You can catch them procrastinating in Hillman, reading in Cathy or dreading a required economics course in Lawrence. Share your own opinions or sell them CDs by emailing