Neologisms: Author’s prerogative or editor’s bugbear?

neologism[nee-ol-uh-jiz-uh m]noun
1. a new word, meaning, usage, or phrase.
2. the introduction or use of new words or new senses of existing words. Dictionary.com

Gale Winskill
Gale Winskill, Editor

I asked my editor and friend (apart from when we’re having a dust-up about my writing) for an editor-sort-of-blog for us. Mac.Gale joins us on 13 May.

Creative invention, author-style

Fiction is clearly the realm of creative invention, so when authors dream up and posit neologisms in their narratives isn’t that just what they do? Without them, the world would definitely be a poorer place. Consider a few which now form part of our daily lexicon: Dr Seuss’s ‘Grinch’, Joseph’s Heller’s ‘Catch 22’, or Sheridan’s ‘malapropism’. All are now used without conscious thought for their origins, and embody laudable contributions to the continuing evolution of the English language.

Enhance and expand

But it’s not just authors who enhance our ever-widening vocabulary. The young are nothing if not inventive utilizers of words. Think, ‘lit’, ‘sick’ … The words may have been re-appropriated, yet modern coinage doesn’t dispense with past meanings; it merely expands, enriches, provides a fresh, innovative spin – vocabulary is revitalized and reinvented through usage.

What’s a ‘muggle’ got to do with this?

In the same way, new words and meanings only exist and come into common parlance via fiction if they resonate with the reader. Without JK Rowling’s phenomenal worldwide success, ‘muggle’ would probably not have endured, and yet it is now defined by the OED as: in her novels, ‘a person who possesses no magical powers’; and by extension, in the real world, ‘a person who lacks a particular skill or skills, or who is regarded as inferior in some way’. But without that initial common understanding among like-minded readers, with the same narrative frame of reference, that particular seed might not have germinated.
So, when working on an author’s text, what is the editor’s role in this regard? Is there a point at which editors should perhaps dissuade authors from certain linguistic creations? Are some inventions just too ridiculous to consider? Or does anything go?

Editor’s role

A fiction editor’s most important function is to stand in for the ultimate reader. If there is a word, albeit extant or unique, that grates or feels out of place in the context of the novel, surely the editor is obligated to highlight and substantiate this concern to the writer.

An editor can only advise, guide and identify how other readers might perceive the author’s diction. It is then up to the author to either defend that usage, or agree that perhaps their editor might just have a point.
After all, on the face of it, A.A. Milne’s ‘Heffalump’ may not suit as the moniker of an East End gangster. Then again, as Pooh knows, ‘Heffalumps hardly ever get caught’, this protagonist is particularly evasive, and the novel a black comedy. But in an otherwise hard-hitting thriller, if a reserved and measured character ‘cackle-laughs’ and ‘angry-chews’ his way repeatedly through the narrative, an editor might suggest that perhaps such hyphenated inventions detract from the characterization, feel out of context and jar on the textual fluidity.

Something old … something new

Authors create; editors make them think. But authors always make the final decision. The result might be a ‘serendipitous’ (Horace Walpole) addition to the English language or the possible loss of a ‘quark’ (James Joyce). As authorial privilege or editorial irritant, successful neologisms form a fundamental aspect of the lexicographers’ ‘whodunnit’ (Donald Gordon), ‘bedazzling’ (Shakespeare) and exasperating us in equal measure with their ‘hard-boiled’ (Mark Twain) persistence.

© Gale Winskill, Winskill Editorial