Shup all the drogs!

Our current project at MIT is finding jolly exciting science things by looking at the chemistry of life. But not what the chemistry of life is. No, we are looking at what the chemistry of life is not, and so far this has proven amazingly fruitful, if you are interested in phosphine, which I now am. It is even relevant to Five Alarm Bio, which is slightly weird, and is a small step for a man towards his dream of founding an astrobiology start-up.

But phosphine is not today’s topic, boys and girls. Today’s topic is something else that is not. Words that are not words.

It is obvious looking at the translations of warning messages on trains, buses, libraries that English is a compact language. It takes twice as many words to say ‘the emergency exit is at the end of the coach, dumb-ass’ in Spanish as in English . But it is not nearly as compact as it might be. There are a whole lot of short words that are not used, and could replace long ones. For example, we have English words for dig, dog and dug. Dag is obscure but a proper word. But deg is not used at all. Why is deg not an English word? We have with drag, dreg and drug, but not drog . We have cat/khat, kit, cot and cut, but not ket/cet. Cart, curt, court, but not Kyrt. And so on.

A few patterns are almost completely populated – gnat, net, neat, nit, night, not, nut, newt  (and that series tells you all you need to know about English spelling.) It is missing nate. What might nate mean? The thing that innate things are in, obviously, leading one to speculate what outnate skills are. But I digress.

If we really wanted a compact, efficient language, we would replace words like ‘compact’ and ‘efficient’ and ‘language’  with deg and shup and cet.

Now, there may be pronunciation reasons for some of these gaps, but I suspect not all. I think there are little lacunae (or drogs as we shall now call them, for compactness’ sake) in the language just waiting for a meaning to fill them. Consider ’bit’. A perfectly sensible word meaning, well, a bit. You know. Not a lot. ‘Bit’ has been hijacked by those nerds to mean something terribly technical. So ‘bit’ now has a techie connotation. When someone decided that ‘autonomous software agent’ was rather  a mouthful for Daily Mail readers and called it a ’bot’ instead, it fit into the drog left between bat, bet, bit and but, it fitted with ‘bit’ in being sort of techie, and so ‘bot’ meaning “Mark Zuckerberg’s tube to hoover up the contents of your wallet” is established.

(By contrast ‘app’ is just made upp.)

You can do the same with consonant patterns. Bog, cog, dog, fog, gog, hog etc.. But I think that running the variants on the vowels is more distinct, in part because there are only eight or so of them .

So my key to a really good viral meme is at least in part to find a name for it that fills a drog between two words with related connotations. It must not sound like the word it is replacing. For example, I could have called drogs ‘gops’, but then you would just think I had mistyped ‘gaps’.  

This seems a perfect task for automation, and I will leave it to the more technical among you to do that. I confidently look forward to the day when wid pag rin by shup all the drogs!

I may have jumped the gun on this, though. Wikipedia thinks that ‘drog’ may be an alternative spelling of ‘drogue’.

Come on. You might spell fell and feel with just one vowel, but in reality they are two sounds. That is just English spelling being lazy.