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Anathem and neologisms

October 6th, 2008 · 9 Comments

A lot of people are criticising Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem, for containing vast quantities of invented words. Instead of mobile phones, he has jeejahs; for video, he has speely; for church, he has ark; and so on.

I had been warned about these beforehand, and yet I still became irritated during the first couple of hundred pages (at which point I would be nearing the end for most novels, but for Anathem, not even up to the first act), since I regularly had to turn to the glossary to remind myself of what they all meant. It wasn’t particularly clear to me why he insisted on doing this.

However, once the words had bedded down in my mind, I realised that there was a very simple and good reason for inventing new words; they are free of the baggage and connotations that we automatically associate with ‘normal’ words. If I say Plato, or Aristotle, or Science, or Humanities to you, then a certain notion may immediately pop up in your mind. This notion, however, is probably an amalgam of various things you have read, or heard, or seen – it is probably not the product of actual considered thought on your own part. Which is not surprising since most people don’t have much reason to be thinking about these concepts.

Stephenson replaces these well-worn characters and concepts with new words, and in doing so, forces the reader to consider their meaning from first principles, which is a major point of the book. It is often painful to do this, but definitely worthwhile if you can get through it. Speaking for myself, it was one of the most engaging and dramatic philosophy primers I’ve ever read, and it’s one of those few books that makes you think there might be a better way to live your life.

None of this requires jeejahs and speelys, which (at least to me) correspond directly to things we have in our world, and frankly it seems a bit bloody-minded for Stephenson to insist on giving them new names when he still calls a train a train. What I can tell you is that there are actually very few such words, and most of the invented words have good reasons for being invented.

Ultimately, Stephenson opened himself up for unnecessary criticism with his use of jeejahs, which has allowed people to dismiss the whole book as being sophomoric, when in fact it’s just a small niggle that is merely trying to play along with the far more worthwhile invented (or rather, disguised) concepts and characters.

Tags: adrian · book · sf · writing

9 responses so far ↓

  • Adam // Oct 6, 2008 at 2:10 am

    …and he goes the opposite way, of course, on the same subject. With Quicksilver, he goes out of his way to use words and phrases that in modern life have blurred so far from their original meanings as to be unrecognisable. By using them in a half-corrupted form, the etymology and origination of the modern usage often become self-evident.

    But without the half-way point, it’s lost.

  • Michael B // Oct 13, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Agree wholeheartedly. I recently read an interview with Stephenson where he was talking about the Millenium Clock, the inspiration behind some of the ideas in Anathem. He said that 9 out of ten people basically don’t get it, they stare blankly and think what’s the point. The other one gets massively excited and starts blabbing about it to everyone they know as they can’t for the life of them stop thinking about how cool it all is.

    I think Neal Stephenson’s novels are the same. Personally I think they are among the greatest novels of our age. How I have tried to proselytize them, even amongst die hard sci-fi and fantasy fans, only to be met with incomprehension and boredom. Wtf? Those who like it- get it if you will- really like it; everyone else just…doesn’t.

    Some of the reaction has surprised me as Stephenson has always been difficult in the sense that he has never shied from complex theories, arcane references, philosophical concepts etc. Novelists develop- this is development, and with the bar set so vertiginously with “The Barqoue Cycle” the next project was likely to be dense but brilliant.

    Anyway, I’m still wading through Anathem and actively enjoy the reconstruction work involved in puzzling out how the Arban world intersects with our own: how Gardan’s Steelyard is basically Occham’s Razor, but with a difference etc etc- that going back to first principles you mention. Still have quite a way to go but already I would say its one of the most fascinating novels I ever have come across. Would have expected nothing less, naturally.

  • Scribe // Oct 17, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Can’t decide whether to go out and buy this or not, but the point is interesting if you take it out of a literary context and into the real world. Lots of terms are constantly re-invented, often for political or marketing reasons, and generally for the reasons you outline – to get away from previous connotations. Political Correctness and Political Bureaucracy are prime examples of this, so that one no longer knows how to refer to the colour of people’s skin, or the latest government target policy. Inventing new terms for the same thing invents new attitudes.

    Is technology the target of political shifts currently too?

  • Adrian Hon // Oct 18, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Michael: I think that Stephenson’s books are very much about the history and application of ideas, rather than, say, about interesting character development. If you aren’t the sort of person who will hear an idea and then immediately start thinking about the ramifications, then Stephenson’s books will come across as being rather dry and pointless.

    Anathem certainly seems to have split both his critics and admirers, which I take as a good thing, since it means he’s trying something new. Even two weeks after finishing the book, I’m still mulling the ideas over in my head and evangelising it to friends.

    Scribe: Stephenson would describe both of those terms as ‘bullshytt’ which is one of his sillier terms. It’s not directly analogous to ‘bullshit’ but instead refers to (essentially) contentless or purposefully vague/evading speech: http://www.nealstephenson.com/anathem/dict.htm

  • Stephane // Oct 29, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    There are some nice speelies on Stephenson’s site in which he talks about the reasons behind the invented glossary:
    http://www.nealstephenson.com/anathem/videos.htm

    Once I got used to it, I loved it. “Speely” really doesn’t have the same feel as “movie” or “film” for me.
    The only thing that felt odd was that the saeculars almost never used deformed versions of the glossary words. For instance, they always said “speelycaptor” when they would probably have switched to “captor”, just as we say “phone”.
    I did like Ita’s jargon a lot, though.

  • Kevin // Feb 23, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    I saw the neologisms as a way to pull the reader into the world by affecting his language iconography.

    It’s worked for me, I’ve started to refer to my phone as a jeejah (onamanapea) and movies as speelies.

  • Mike A // Jun 1, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Personally, I don’t see how anyone intelligent to understand the complex ideas being put forth in this book could have any trouble interpreting and incorporating Stephenson’s new words into their mental lexicon.

    I have a feeling that most of the people complaining about the words “speely” and “jeejah” are really just scapegoating them for the fact that once polycosms came around their minds lost track.

    Neal Stephenson is a brilliant writer, and his willingness to keep things complicated rather than dumb them down to inanity is a sign of great personal courage in an industry that urges writers to keep their works simple to appeal to the masses.

  • Adrian Hon // Jun 1, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Mike, no-one here dislikes Neal Stephenson as a writer, and nor is anyone suggesting that he should dumb down his books. Certainly we’re all capable of figuring out what he means. The question is, what does it add? In some cases, his use of new terms for old and loaded concepts is brilliant and integral to the story; in other cases, it’s overdone. I get the point, in that if you give movies a new name, perhaps it helps you see their effect on people in a new light, but it seems curiously moralistic when he doesn’t seem to have a problem with, say, ’screen’, or ‘rocket’ or whatever.

    What you are saying is that anyone who dislikes the use of the words ’speely’ and ‘jeejah’ – for *whatever* reason – is stupid, malicious, or both. That’s quite an unfortunate accusation to make, given that everyone here is a fan of Stephenson, including myself.

  • Paris Sinclair // Feb 21, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Jeejah and speely are words that track changing technology where our own words change over time. When I was a kid, I used to listen to a Walk-Man. Now I get some eye-rolls when I refer to my “mp3 player” instead of using a brand name. (that it isn’t, and that wasn’t the first)

    What you simply call a “movie,” when I’m perusing online there are other terms often used; PAL, HDTV, 720i, etc.

    As for jeejah, if enough people read the book and start calling them that, then these complaints will become (more) laughable. As it is now, “mobile” doesn’t even cover it. And has only been a popular word for a couple years. Maybe in 5 years we’ll have gone back to the (also still used) “cell” or “cellphone.” But the jeejahs in the book seem to be mostly “smart phones.” What the people who roll their eyes at “mp3 player” would call an “iPhone” or a “crackberry.”

    And Bullshytt is even one of the pronunciations of the English word, and one used only in a very narrow band of contexts.

    I find these words to vary from the important-to-detach-from-baggage to the playful to jokes about how quickly our own words change.

    And to kick the old nag again, “movie” would leave out entirely the joke on the language changing along with the technology, even where the use of that tech is the same.

    There is a lot to think about beyond the depth and density of the story itself; there is additional depth and density in the way it is told.

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