Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Another Voice | 16 August 2008

If you or your chatmate are looking for a nilogism or mislexis, don’t wait till an earar

If you or your chatmate are looking for a nilogism or mislexis, don’t wait till an earar

At the beginning of the year I devoted this column to words that don’t exist. By that I meant things for which there ought to be a word, but there isn’t. This is itself, of course, one of them: we have no English word for the absence of what would be a useful word, should anyone care to coin one.

Or, rather, we didn’t. We do now, because among the many suggestions sent in subsequently by readers of that column, there have been two proposals for ways of filling precisely this gap. The first is my own favourite: nilogism. There will be objections to this from purists, however, because it mixes Latin and Greek. A viable alternative comes from another reader: mislexis. South Africans (a reader assures me) have a term of their own for something that may well have a name but, if it does, the speaker has forgotten it: dingus, which means ‘whatchamacallit, whatsisname or thingummyjig’.

Explaining what I meant by ‘missing’ words, I gave by way of example a gap that irritates me as a journalist who often needs to make a report. There is no good, plain English term for ‘the person I/you/he was/were talking to’. A number of readers have reminded me that the familiar French interlocuteur has its English equivalent: interlocutor. I did know that, but it’s hardly a workaday sort of word, and I doubt we could popularise it for use in the pub. A better fit is offered by chatmate, but even so, the term implies a familiarity which may or may not have been present. Some readers have suggested ‘friend’ or ‘hearer’, but the neutral expression we lack should not imply that the person is on friendly terms, or that he or she is necessarily listening.

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