My Words

My greatest claim to fame turns out to be a word I created in 1975 while writing a book review for The Boston Phoenix. I needed a word to complete a metaphor that I’d just started to write on my IBM Selectric that read, “The sign in every storefront in our culture reads: “_________ Spoken Here.”

In a matter of seconds, “psychobabble” popped into my head. I then wrote a cover story called “Psychobabble” for New Times, a national magazine of the period, and the word got some immediate traction, thanks also to mentions in Time magazine and elsewhere. The New York Times’ William Safire cited the word in his language column and it—and I—were suddenly the answer to the acrostics puzzle in the Times’ Sunday Magazine. In 1977, I published a book called Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling that proved much less popular than the word itself, which eventually found its way into several dictionaries.

More often than I’d like to admit, when people have used the word in casual conversation with me, I haven’t been able to resist remarking, “You know, I invented that term.” It’s a claim that’s usually, and understandably, met with disbelief. The life of a word-inventor isn’t easy; there’s the incredulity of others, but also the lack of remuneration. Unlike song lyrics, a word cannot be copyrighted, so I’ve never received a penny in royalties for filling a gap in the English language.

Sadly, this hasn’t stopped me over the years from pressing my luck by trying to coin other terms. I’ve even managed to get some of them into print in prestigious publications. The closest I’ve come to repeating my success was the word “bullcrit”—denoting the tendency among the chattering classes to pass detailed judgment on books and movies, based entirely on reviews they’ve read. To be honest, the word itself was something of a group effort over brunch with friends, and I wrote an article called “Bullcrit” in New York Magazine. Bullcrit was cited here and there in other magazines, but it never caught on, no doubt because, unlike psychobabble, its meaning is not immediately apparent and it applies only to a narrow social world. It’s also just an ugly word full of hard consonants.

Another attempt—“millencholy”—appeared on The New York Times’ Op-Ed page on the eve of the new millennium, but rapidly passed into history along with the moment it related to. “Biteability,” a concept I also introduced in The Times, captured a cultural trend toward shorter and shorter units of information, but proved far less conducive to conversational use—and name-calling—than psychobabble.

I don’t know whether to be happy or sad that my youngest daughter takes after me, having coined a brilliant word that, I’m sorry to say, can’t be used in mixed company, even in this day and age.

My penchant for inventing fictitious products and services has been somewhat more successful, resulting in a New York Magazine spread, titled “Not Available In Any Store,” which was followed by a book-length collection of fake stuff by the same name.

I couldn’t resist adding “Lies of the Jungle,” an article published in The Washington Post Magazine (12/7/08) that has nothing to do with making up words, but concerns making up lies. The piece was all I could salvage from my experience of being asked to write the official biography of a 75-year-old chimpanzee living in Southern California, said to have been one of the original Cheetas, Johnny Weissmuller’s sidekick in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ’40s.