Neologisms of Stanislaw Lem
|This is a thought-inducing journey that takes you across neologisms of Stanislaw Lem - and it may even inspire you to create some of your own. Please bear in mind that since Lem originally wrote in Polish, you may encounter a few elements that do not belong with the English language. Yet, neither the command of Polish nor any particular level of education is indispensible to enjoy this material. What you need is but a healthy dose of imagination.|
What are neologisms?
Neologisms (from the Greek - neos new, and logos word) are novel words that aspire to enter and enrich languages, filling semantic lacunae thereof. Usually, such words are begotten out of practical reasons, such as urges of naming newly disclosed phenomena, emergences of previously unnamed inventions, or establishments of new entities. Once introduced, these fresh lexemes may teeter on the verge of the thrive and extinction. More than bare thoughts, still less than linguistic entities sanctioned by suitable records in dictionaries, neologisms live tumultuous, volatile lives that may conclude in a neologism becoming a byword (i.e. smartphone), yet always running the risk of plunging into oblivion (i.e. pager, VHS cassette).
Nonetheless, there is something more to neologisms than meets the eye - these versatile vehicles of fresh conception may be also harnessed by fiction as a robust tool of artistic, literary creation. Novelists may resort to neologisms in order to - as it was argued by Stanislaw Lem, quoted hereinafter - denote invented items, name odd occurrences and label alien environments. These words may also enter everyday languages. Suffice it to mention Orwell's Big Brother or Capek's robot.
An important fact is that the creation of both common and artistic neologisms is governed by the same morphological processes.
There are several types of processes that may result in hatching of a previously nonexistent word. The branch of linguistic science tasked with retrieving roots of words and classifying the latter by the way they originated is named etymology. The prosperity of words, within a reasonable extent, may be compared to the prosperity of human beings: a word, once “juvenile” and shunned, may enjoy a quantitative growth spurt, as its increasing importance and respect towards it may be legitimized – be it by a higher demand for it (i.e. computer, car, etc.), be it by a poshy fashion (celebrity). A breakthrough point for a new word is often marked by the moment it is given a record in a dictionary. Yet, nowadays the phenomenon of adding novel utterances to vocabulary has quickened its pace. Societies overtly use whole sets of words – mostly expressions linked inextricably with technological progress – long before these ad hoc neologisms find their entries in any printed dictionaries.
The most common and, consequently, extremely productive word formation process of the English language is derivation. What occurs throughout derivation may be likened to what a child does while manipulating with bricks: a basic, impartial item (a core word, linguistically referred to as the root) is being enhanced by additions assembled either to the front of the altered word (prefixes), or by suffixes attached to the root’s butt. Furthermore, a word may be enriched by a means of an infix – an internal affix – that enters the middle of the substance of a word.
Frequently encountered prefixes are: dis-, im-, in-, mis-, on-, out-, re-, un-, etc. Vastly used suffixes are: -able, -ance, -ation, -down, -ed, -ence, -ing, -ity, -less, ment, -ness, -ship, etc.
One of the simplest ways of shaping new words is joining two (or more) already existing terms together. Not only is it possible to combine elements that belong to the same grammatical category (e.g. two nouns: bed + room, bedroom), but to fuse multiple parts of speech is also a commonplace (e.g. preposition + noun: oversimplification, noun + past participle: frostbitten, etc.)
Yet another important word formation process is borrowing. It may read a worn out cliché that languages are generally akin to one another and that they exchange their influences mutually and relentlessly, but that factor is indeed hard to be overvalued. It is especially the case with the English language, whose tumultuous history has cyclically seen it flooded with cornucopias of alien, heterogeneous vocabularies. It could also be noticed that the same process is intensely occurring in the reversed direction. The English language serves as a main source of foreign terms for most of the major languages.
In etymology, conversion takes place if a word remains visually intact, but its grammatical category changes, that is undergoes a shift. This process is being eagerly resorted to in the present times. Suffice it to mention the conversions of nouns such as text (to text somebody – to send a message via mobile phone) or e-mail (to e-mail somebody – to send an electronic letter). This process is supported greatly by the simplicity of the English language in the respect of the non-problematic switching from a noun to a verb (or the other way around) while the written form of the word conversed remains unscathed.
As the hectic pace of modern life seems to favour short forms, per analogiam it champions conciseness in language. Consequently, many a word has undergone more or less radical shortening. So rooted have some of these clippings become in the everyday language that their original, longish forms are hardly recallable (e.g. perambulator – pram, refrigerator – fridge, automobile - auto). Amongst the other examples of the process of clipping one may find: bro (brother), sis (sister), flu (influenza), doc (doctor) or vet (veterinary surgeon).
The process of blending may be understood as one akin to compounding. However, unlike the latter that simply joins two or more otherwise intact words, blending spares only the very front chunk of one word and the very bottom chunk of another, cutting the remnants out and hybridising these frontal and rear bits into a brand new term. Amongst the blends one finds words such as smog or brunch.
Backformation is a peculiar word formation process that serves shaping verbs on the basis of nouns by reducing the latter’s redundant endings. For example, the verb to enthuse was formed by means of cutting out the ending of the noun enthusiasm.
Etymology shoots out its somewhat bizarre ramification embodied by misformation. A renowned example of this process is the German-based word hamburger. It has been analysed incorrectly, namely as if it were made of two stems (ham + burger). Consequently, a whole stream of meal-related words has been invented on the basis of this conjunction (cheeseburger, fishburger, etc.) In fact, hamburger had “nothing to do” with ham, as it was named after the port city of Hamburg.
The process of forming acronyms sets the anecdotal air of the last definition aside, as it pertains to usually more official niche of onomastics. Acronyms are assembled by means of gathering the initial letters of the particular words that form a longish proper name (of an object, an institution, etc.) The purpose of inventing acronyms is to provide a complex notion with a succinct label lest the labyrinth of words starting with capital letters hamper the reader’s attention, dissipate the message. E.g. a proper name of an agency: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation comprises fifty-seven letters, otherwise seven words plus a comma. Contrarily, UNESCO (read as /juːˈneskəʊ/) may be seen as an easy to pronounce, concise, catchy expression that allows the speaker to use it freely in the language with a dexterity equal to any other words.
The last, though indeed not least word formation process to be discussed herein is the one that bequeaths its potential user with the highest amount of the freedom of imagination of them all. A coinage is a totally new term, invented "out of the blue" or from scratch. It is vital to reiterate that many a neologism cited hereinafter is a fruit of the very same process, namely coinage. Even though Lem’s literary, artistic, unreal (or humorous) neologisms dub, name, label but nonexistent products, never seen phenomena, unearthly behaviours, they were fathered in accordance with the very same rules that govern coining the names of authentic brand labels.
Stanislaw Lem was such a titan of the world's literature that there is hardly a point in reposting his biography here. Yet, there are some less known curiosities about the author.
Lem's unique onomastic talent and down-to-earth stance
Lem was endowed with an outstanding onomastic talent, which means he was an extraordinarily fertile author in terms of coining both neologisms and proper names. Here is what the author himself had to say on neologisms:
If someone – regardless of the tone: facetious or serious – desires to describe events outside the fringe of the earthly civilisation, and in doing so he wants to emphasise the bizarreness or oddness of the environment depicted, he must use neologisms. To my mind, it is nonsense to avoid them. It is exactly as if someone wanted to write on seafaring, but without using nautical terms. [...] Say: bowsprit – sounds unpleasant, but it is necessary. Invalid
<ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many (Translation mine - Hall Bregg II.)
At another point Lem adds:
As far as the neologisms are concerned, I believe that I restrain myself to the absolutely necessary minimum. If I really were to start making up a language of a different epoch, I would spend half of my life writing a totally incomprehensible book, unless I would attach to it a dictionary, containing an encyclopaedia – yet another fruit of my own conception Invalid
<ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many
Some anecdotes about the persona of Stanislaw Lem
Lem, having been a sought after novelist, would start writing (by means of the typewriter) at dawn and would not stop till his lower body parts' ache became unbearable. He maintained that it was the bottom, not the head, that was first prone to weariness.
Over the course of creation the writer would refresh his senses with a thimbleful or two of those sweet liqueurs that Lem was particularly fond of. The years wore on. Once upon a time down went Lem to the basement of theirs. Then all of the sudden, and to his sincere bewilderment, he realised that down there there was an entire shelf laden with empty bottles of the liqueurs he used to slake his artistic thirst with.
Lem's USA agent, Franz Rottensteiner, claimed that Lem had once confessed to having written over 300 (sic!) novels. That would mean that but a mere 10% of Lem's heritage have seen the light of day.
Chosen examples of the translated novels abundant with neologisms
The Futurological Congress
Absurdity-driven The Futurological Congress, placed roughtly in the present, is a facetious, hallucinogenic mockery, a tart satire on cynicism of politics and the threats of technological progress. The society is clandestinely driven by the influences of psychoactive substances delibrately sprayed in the air and added to food and water. The protagonist experiences the collapse of reality, as the latter turns out to comprise but onion-skin fashioned layers of perception that peel off relentlessly, giving place to yet another illusion.
The neologisms of ...Congress serve mostly irony and mockery. A countless number of psychemicals, that is society-driving drugs is named by means of neologisms. The author,coining these, quite often resorts to Slavic word roots, potentially giving an Anglo-Saxon translator a headache.
Return from the Stars
The distant future prophecy of Return from the Stars is kept in perpendicularly futuristic, though calm and serious chimes. The novel is laden with somewhat breathtaking panoramas of ultra-modern milieus and landscapes, where the once trenchant border between the natural and the artificial is no longer discernable. The plot revolves around the idea of time dilation. The protagonist returns from a remote star flight to discover that the Earth which he known had died, replaced by a despondent society of mellow creatures, altogether devoid of aggression - and of courage.
The neologisms of Return... play a pivotal role in describing the journey to the remote future, which the books actually depicts. A space rocket turns out to be a merciless time machine which flies the astronaut back home safely and splendidly - but it flies him back, after centuries having gone on Earth, to a world painfully alien.
Below you may find an analysis of the neologisms' corpus of the novel compiled from the vantage point of translation studies. Enlisted are morphological processes that have occurred in the course of coining neologisms in both translation and the original, along with the procedures of translation that the American translator resorted to in each example.
Neologisms of Return from the Stars: a bilingual analysis
Clicking here moves you to a detailed analysis of the Polish and English neologisms of the abovementioned novel.
The prophecies. What are Lem's neological inventions that have already seen the light of the day?
It is somewhat striking to observe that several Lem's neologisms, albeit they appeared under different names and not within exactly the same shapes, have already materialised in reality. A handful of examples comes hereinafter:
In Return from the Stars Lem anticipated the arrival of miniaturised written data. The opton, as it were, is Lem's name for a device known today as e-book. Lem's appliance had only one page and required the content to be uploaded into it, which holds true to our actual e-books.
Lem predicted audiobooks, too. In the same novel, under the name of the lecton came a device that read a given text aloud to the recipiend, just as our actual audiobooks do.
The kalster, as it were, was Lem's idea of the credit card. This time round the Polish prophetic writer came up with somewhat less accurate a prediction - in his versions, kalsters were mini-printers that produced a required amount of change made of plastic on the spot.
The world we have known has not yet arrived at driverless vehicles, yet an implementation of that invention looms imminent. In one of Lem's worlds, the autonomous cars existed under the name of gleeder. These were black, windowless, wheelless projectiles, unfathomably rapid and fully immune to collisions (thanks to the gravity-zeroying black boxes), yet they had one true drawback - they could not ream any route off the beaten track.
Create your own neologisms!
Once you have acquainted yourself with both the morphological processes and the abundant lexical heritage of Lem and, it is high time you got inspired and got down to coining your own neologisms!
Hereunder you will find several conceptions that might be just about to enter reality, but they have not been named yet.
Your task is to conceive suitable labels for them.
A man who underwent head transplant
It sounds like a canard, but when it is done, it will surely make the headlines - a Russian man, who suffers from an incurable muscle disease is to become the first patient whose head would be attached to a donor's body. But how to refer to such a blended organism once the surgery is done?
A manned drone
Even though drones have already become a household name, several companies have announced that they are developing their machines in order to make them capable of transporting people. It is conceivable that such manned drones will require a separate name. How would you call them?
A person living on the Moon or on Mars
Even though it is probably a thing of remote future, there are viable chances that one day mankind will set its foot on other celestial bodies for good. Would you have an idea how to call a domiciled inhabitant of the planet Mars? The term Martian seems to have been reserved for creepy, alien creatures of literature and film. Will the term undergo a shift in meaning, or will a new name be invented? And what about the Moon and her potential citizens?
A driverless car
Major car companies have pledged that their fully autonomous vehicles will hit the roads by the end of this decade. Will the self-driving automobile retain the name of car, or there will be a new one, resulting from the need for differentiation?
Nano robots that carry medicines directly to the cells
It may turn out that microscopic healing devices will bring about a turning point of medicine. Do you think that the names already floating around, such as nanobots, will announce their arrival?
Two seasons instead of the standard four seasons division in moderate climate
In Central Europe, the changing climate seems to have altered the weather so that, instead of the traditional four-fold division, there are only two major seasons - the cold and the hot one. Can the terms of spring and autumn gradually become outdated or be replaced?
We may now and again learn from news that muscle-supportive, power-enhancing outer skeletons have been tested by the military. Can their name enter the language as tank once did, being a cover-up, purposefully misleading cryptonym?
A conscious machine
The ultimate item awaiting to be named is indeed a dream of a far future. Nevertheless, finding its a name may be an amusing quest.
General sources and further reading
Jarzębski, Jerzy (ed.) (1989) Lem w oczach krytyki światowej. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Kandel, Michael (1992) “Introduction to the Harvest Edition (1992).” [In:] Lem, Stanisław  (1992) Mortal Engines. Orlando, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, London: A Harvest Book. Harcourt, Inc.
Lem, Stanisław  (1985) Powrót z gwiazd. Kraków – Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Lem, Stanisław  Powrót z gwiazd. English translation (1980) by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, Return from the stars. San Diego. New York. London: A Harvest/HBJ Book. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Lem, Stanisław  (1983) Kongres futurologiczny. Maska. Kraków – Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Lem, Stanisław  (1985) Kongres futurologiczny. English translation (1974) by Michael Kandel, The futurological congress. Orlando, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, London: A Harvest Book. Harcourt, Inc.
Lem, Stanisław and Stanisław Bereś (2002). Tako rzecze... LEM. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Maślanka, Marcin (2015) “Prorok w obcym kraju. O neologizmach Stanisława Lema.” [In:] Nowakowska, Katarzyna, Piotr Niemiec and Sylwia Zajchowska (eds.) (2015) Literatura i języki obce w dobie kryzysu humanistyki. Wrocław: Atut.
Rottensteiner, Franz  Der dialektische Weise aus Kraków. Polish translation by Zdzisław Wawrzyniak; Mędrzec dialektyczny z Krakowa. [In:] Jarzębski, Jerzy (ed.) (1989) Lem w oczach krytyki światowej. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie; 11-23.
Sierotwiński, Stanislaw (ed.) (1986) Słownik terminów literackich. Kraków: Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich.
Szymanek, Bogdan (2010) A Panorama of Polish Word-Formation. Lublin: Wydawnictwo Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego.
Yule, George (2006) The study of language. New York: Cambridge University Press.