Also known as the essay for students who wish to absquatulate to the University of Chicago, or if you prefer, to skedaddle, or for those who are in a real hurry, to skidoo.
Always suckers for a punny response and for innovation, the University of Chicago is taking aim directly at your ability to innovate this year: not only can you make up your own essay prompt for the 2018-2019 application, you can also choose to write an essay in which you make up your own word, as shown in the prompt:
University of Chicago Essay Option 3
The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.
-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022
Some Rules for Neologisms
So first, let’s get our tools in order here, which in this case means let’s look at a few useful words about words.
What you are being asked to do is to create a neologism, which means to create a new word, and therefore some kind of new idea–so start by looking around to see what new things need a new word, or what old things seem to have mutated in such a way that a new word is in order to describe the new strangeness.
This brings up a second term, etymology, which is the history and usage of a word, or if you will, the biography of a word. Yes, words have lives–they are born, they live, and if they do not die they do fade away. So think of your new word as being alive, and think of your essay as explaining the birth and life of your word.
Here, for example, is the etymology of floccinaucinihilipilification:
“action or habit of estimating as worthless,” in popular smarty-pants use from c. 1963; attested 1741 (in a letter by William Shenstone, published 1769), a combination of four Latin words (flocci, nauci, nihili, pilifi) all signifying “at a small price” or “for nothing,” which appeared together in a rule of the well-known Eton Latin Grammar + Latin-derived suffix -fication “making, causing.”
[F]or whatever the world might esteem in poor Somervile, I really find, upon critical enquiry, that Iloved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money. [Shenstone, letter, 1741]
The kind of jocular formation that was possible among educated men in Britain in those days. Just so, as in praesenti, the opening words of mnemonic lines on conjugation in Lilley’s 16c. Latin grammar, could stand alone as late as 19c. and be understood to mean “rudiments of Latin.” The entry above comes to us courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, which for me is worth ten Wikipedias).
Obviously, Chicago is revivifying an old and obscure word in citing floccinaucinihilipilification (Notice that the word is composed of a series of Latin words used as a repetitive root that basically restates the same meaning, followed by the suffix ification, so a certain amount of nonsense is clearly okay when making up a new word, as long as the nonsense in your word is aimed at skewering some real nonsense out in the world.
This alone should give you some ideas about how to proceed, among them the careful selection of an existing word or set of words which you then combine and add prefixes and suffixes to, as needed for effect. You could start our search by going to the Online Dictionary of Etymology to look up the suffix just mentioned (ification) and then just click around to find ideas, notebook at hand: Etymology and Examples of ification.
Why We Make Up Words
People make up new words in order to describe new realities or situations and/or because making up words is fun. Just look at the etymologies for the words I started this post with to get an idea of how new situations and the need for fun can promote linguistic creativity: skedaddle, absquatulate.
Being in the midst of the Civil War and wishing to be elsewhere, plus the long periods of boredom between battle promoted the invention of many words, it seems, though there was also a fad through much of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for coining new words using Latinate roots, because they sound great and meaningful while conveying silly or lightweight ideas, mostly. Some of these 19th-Century neologisms live on, partly because they capture an idea well, but also because of the way they sound. Bloviate is an example, which conveys what it means partly by how it sounds. So sound really does matter. Say it out loud after you coin it to see if it passes the fun sound test.
What New Situations Need New Words Today?
Your new word should also, hopefully, describe something you see going on that, as of yet, has no single word or simple phrase to describe it. As an example of a word that was created to describe a new situation, you can look at the idea of “buggy” software or a “computer bug,” though the source of “bug” as a word for a technical problem is actually quite a bit older than that, as shown in this OED blog entry: Buggy
When we are not making up words for new situations, we often simply borrow them from other languages, either directly or by slightly repurposing them, as can be seen in words like monsoon and tsunami (extended discussion here), so you should also consider looking at foreign languages for ideas–but do not simply borrow the word straight from the other language, lest you offer your frenemies an opportunity for schadenfreude when your application is turned down for lack of originality.
If you find an interesting foreign word, tinker with it a bit. For example, if you take a noticeable stand against certain public figures these days, say on Twitter, you might face a Trollnami of attack Tweets.
Which brings up some additional advice: I thought I was pretty clever in coming up with trollnami, until I did a search and found multiple examples, and saw that trollnami already has its own hashtag on Twitter.
So back to the drawing board, but this does show you one of the elements of making a new word: it has to define a current phenomenon that does not yet have its own name, and the armies of trolls on platforms like Twitter is a reality that is creating new words.
If we ditch tsunami and look for some other words to combine to describe a situation that is new, we could come up with Donaldangst, something that is plaguing some of my acquaintances, and many I know are upset by the Ubersqualidification of our culture due to social media (mis) use. These last two neologisms use German word parts–one a root word, the other a prefix, so I will now point you to one of my favorite word books:
Schottenfreude is a book in the spirit of this U Chicago prompt, in which a British man who speaks no German makes up fantastic new Teutonic words, like Schlagerschmeichelei, which means enjoying emotionally manipulative mass culture, despite knowing you are being manipulated, or Eisenbahnscheinbewegung, which denotes the false sensation of movement when, looking our from a stationary train, you see another train depart.
For some more inspiration in fearful times, as well as a supplemental discussion on making up words, have a look at the word of the month for June, 2018, from the Oxford English Dictionary: Trepidatious.
The OED also has a blog that discusses neologisms and has basics on word roots, prefixes and suffixes–a good place to scan for ideas.
This ends my first post focused fully on writing the 2018-2019 University of Chicago application essay. I will write about U Chicago again soon, and have written about them frequently in the past, as in this example. so come back soon. You might also want to follow my blog as I continue to post on various essay prompts for 2018-2019, and if you need editing assistance on college essays, I offer highly detailed editing at a great price–you can find me here: Contact Me.