The Unforgettable Made-Up Words of the 1980s
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes there is simply not a good word for it.
By Sean Braswell
There are close to a million words in the English language, according to some estimates. But not one to describe the crusty residue on the necks of old ketchup bottles. “As wondrously vast as our English vocabulary may be,” Richard Lederer writes in The Miracle of Language, “there remain a surprisingly large number of concepts for which we still do not have good and serviceable words.”
Enter the sniglet, itself a neologism, which its creator, comedian Rich Hall, described as “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.” Sniglets ranged from aeroma — “the odor emanating from an exercise room after an aerobics workout” — to cheedle (“the residue left on one’s fingertips after consuming a bag of Cheetos”). For a while during the mid-1980s, sniglets were taking the world by storm, expanding our vocabularies and making us laugh at the same time.
The best ones pinned a catchy label on a common experience.
Hall, an offbeat observational comic who was a professional logroller before he won an Emmy writing for David Letterman, first introduced the world to sniglets on the popular HBO comedy series Not Necessarily the News, which debuted in 1983. The half-hour satirical news show combined newsroom satire with more conventional sketches, not to mention some outrageous (at the time) comedic gambits.
The series’ premiere, for example, shows footage of a shocked Prince Charles chatting with an aide and being informed — via a well-dubbed voice-over — that he would be meeting with eight prostitutes that day. “Not Necessarily the News followed in the steps of Airplane!, Animal House and Ghostbusters,” says Rich Markey, author of A Million Laughs: The Funny History of American Comedy, “in mocking our own generation and pop culture in general. There was no subject exempt from being satirized, [and] it was a groundbreaking TV comedy in the 1980s.”
But perhaps the show’s most famous and lasting comedic contribution was the sniglet. “Boy, the American dictionary is truly a living piece of heritage, isn’t it?” Hall observed from behind a leather chair in the show’s first installment of sniglets. “Unfortunately, every year there are thousands of words that accidentally get left out.”
Hall tasked himself and the show’s viewers with finding and compiling those words, and suggestions came pouring into the HBO press office from around the world. It amounted to a pioneering effort in what we now call crowdsourcing and user-generated content. The name of the place where one sock in every laundry load disappears to? Hozone. The unpleasant feeling engendered by fingernails being run down a chalkboard? Chalktrauma. There were hundreds of others, and the best ones pinned a catchy label on a common experience, such as napjerk (a “sudden convulsion of the body just as one is about to doze off”). “Rich Hall’s sniglets,” says Markey, “skewered the way we described the minutiae of the world we lived in.”
Hall’s regular TV sketches in turn spawned a series of best-selling books (yes, in the pre-Twitter 1980s, we had to buy books and magazines to get our bite-size comedic fixes). Of course, some sniglets, like some tweets, have not aged well. For example, anafondics — “exercising to a workout album at 16 RPM” — is a pseudo-term that is probably lost on most people under 40 today. And many sniglets have definitions far better than the words attached to them, like blivett (“to turn one’s pillow over and over, looking for the cool spot”) and furbling (“having to wander through a maze of ropes at an airport or bank even when you are the only person in line”).
The primary value of the sniglet may be its comedic one, but there is nonetheless an underlying linguistic, and even literary, worth to coining new words: Giving a common experience or object a name increases awareness of its existence, lends it a reality that it didn’t formerly enjoy. And, even if these sniglets never actually made it into a real dictionary, there is a satisfaction in knowing that they are out there and that we are not alone in having the observations they denote. It’s a powerful feeling — that we can find our common humanity in the minutiae of day-to-day life. If only there were a name for it.