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.