March 8, 2011

Greater verbal creativity during rising-crime times: Compound names

When you're coining a new name, you can try to be abstract and intellectual or you can be more concrete and intuitive. The later type of consciousness is called many things -- primary, primordial, etc. -- but it has to do with drawing associations or noticing similarities between seemingly unrelated things, while the former has more to do with drawing distinctions and having a narrow focus of vision.

When people are in a more creative, mind-wide-open state, they're less likely to use existing names or take an existing one and put some new spin on it -- they're going to take two things that didn't used to go together, fuse them, and there's your new name. One way to do this is to make a bahuvrihi compound, which is a modified noun but where the thing being named is not an example of the noun. For example, a low-life is not a kind of a life but a kind of a person. The modified noun describes the named person through synecdoche, or through suggesting other qualities that the person has or things they tend to do.

To create such a compound word out of nothing, you need to be in a more primordial state of mind, although to use one that someone else invented long ago, you don't need to think at all. So when these bahuvrihi compounds come into the language, that's a good sign that people are in a more creative mindset.

I used Google's Ngrams tool to see when the common English ones came in, and they were almost all during rising-crime times: ca. 1780 to 1830, ca. 1900 to 1935 and ca. 1960 to 1990. There was another crime wave from ca. 1580 to 1630, when Shakespeare introduced a ton of words and phrases, although I'm not sure if any were bahuvrihi compounds off the top of my head. Chaucer wrote during a rising-crime period of the late 14th C., but again memory fails me about whether or not he coined lots of these compound words.

The only exception is "flatfoot," which was coined during the falling-crime Victorian era. I've detailed before how waves of violence lead to greater creativity, so this result is no surprise.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans were especially fond of this way of making new names, and that's no accident because they were also among the most creative and successful myth-makers that have ever lived. Bucephalus means "ox-head," Alfred or Aelfred means "elf-counsel," just to mention two of the many famous examples. They were nomadic pastoralists who made a good living by raiding and warfare, so they clearly lived in an environment with a high violence level.

For the most recent violence wave, lasting from roughly the 1960s through the '80s, did the storytellers return to this way of bringing in new names? They sure did. After browsing Wikipedia's various lists of characters for cartoon shows, etc., I could only find a handful of examples from the falling-crime times of the mid-'90s through today -- Mrs. Buttloaves from Ren and Stimpy, Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and lots of the cast of Metalocalypse (in general, metalheads -- a bahuvrihi compound itself, and the only one referring to music fans -- have a higher baseline level of interest in myth-making). None of the others, whether the newer Hanna-Barbara ones from Cartoon Network, the Nick Toons, or the Adult Swim ones.

Finding ones from the cartoons of the '60s and '70s is also tough, but that's when Bigfoot was created in the wider culture, not to mention the names that counter-culture parents gave their kids, like Moon Unit. Perhaps the mythogenesis only begins during the second half of the rising-crime period, when things no longer look curable and instead look apocalyptic (like from the mid-'70s through the early '90s). In contrast to the slim pickings of the past 15 to 20 years, here are plenty of very popular examples from just the 1980s (check Wikipedia for more extensive lists):

Transformers: Starscream, Ironhide, Skyfire, Fireflight, Steeljaw, Razorclaw, etc.

G.I. Joe: Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Quick Kick, Dial Tone, Crazylegs, etc.

He-Man: Mekaneck, Snout Spout, Trap Jaw, Scare Glow, Snake Face, perhaps also Castle Grayskull.

Rainbow Brite: Moonglow, Starlite, Monstromurk.

My Little Pony: Sundance, Starnose, Rosedust, Sunshower. (Jesus, the things I'll read about for my research...)

Silverhawks: Steelheart and Steelwill, Hotwing, Windhammer, etc.

GoBots: Flip Top, Screw Head, etc.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Chrome Dome.

Then there were popular toy lines that were based on unwatched TV shows or unread comic books.

Madballs: nearly every one has this kind of name. Hornhead, Dustbrain, Wolf Breath, Lock Lips, etc.

Starriors: Sawtooth, Clawgut, Flashfist, Twinblade, Twinhorn, etc. (NB: twins are big in Proto-Indo-European mythology.)

I also wonder whether kids in the past 15 to 20 years have invented new bahuvrihi names to insult other kids -- barf-breath, shithead, yellow-belly, furburger, needle dick, brown nose, fatass, four-eyes, etc. The new ones that I recall best are not descriptive, through synecdoche or any other figure of speech, such as ass clown or asshat. Like much else, the form has persisted somewhat, but the meaning is lacking.

Well, you get the idea. You have to admire the extra effort the creators took to also make the names alliterative (Starscream), rhyme (Chrome Dome), show assonance (Fireflight), or do several things (Snout Spout).

This shows that what moves people in the more grand, sublime, mythogenesis direction, and away from the petty, cutesy, nihilistic direction, is rising violence levels. No other variable shows such a tight and regularly occurring relationship. And it also shows that it's not just a greater preoccupation with coining badass-sounding names for warriors, as you might think based on the boys' cartoons. Even girls wanted magical names for their cartoon characters. The change in people's psychology was toward a more primordial way of thinking in general.


  1. I'm not saying you don't have a point, but some of the reason you might find less name creativity is that many of today's most popular cartoons are imports from Japan.

    Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Naruto, Bleach, Power Rangers, Zatch Bell, and One Piece are examples. If you look at the names within these series considering their foreign origin, you'll still find some of them creative.

    Transformers took pre-existing Japanese toy products and renamed or gave names where none had existed before.

    You can still find compound names galore in most of today's fantasy games.

  2. Almost all Chinese names have meanings because they are based on characters (Japanese as well), many Japanese and Chinese have the names that include (Ryo/Long) meaning Dragon...using as part of a compound phrase. My ex-wife had the name "Real Disciplined" if you translate it. LOL So I don't think IndoEuropeans are the only people to make such names, they are common in Japanese and Chinese, especially for boys and mythological characters.

    The thing is we don't usually translate names directly, if we did, you might end up with someone named..."Dragon Iron Middle Mountain" (not an usual Japanese name) or "Best the Generation King" (in Mandarin Chinese that would be "Wang Shijie"...

    That being said, I do agree that IndoEuropeans made the best myths, well, no I would say that Semites are first (isn't the bible a myth that has not been debonked lol)...then IndoEuropeans. But the naming thing, I think that is a stretch. I'm sure any language that uses massive amounts of compounds...(Sino-Tibetans, Altaics) use a hell of a lot of compounds. Hell Chinese call a computer "diaonao" (electric-brain). LOL


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