The Weekender, March 26, 2021


For those of you new to the list, welcome! This is the Friday edition of Now I Know, where I typically share something about the stories behind the stories I shared this week (or write about something random) and share some long-reads. You’ll find links to the four fun facts/stories I wrote this week below, and then below that, articles about everything from rhinos to spaghetti. 

Today, I want to talk about “made-up words.” I’ve had the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” stuck in my head since Monday, when I began writing about the story I sent out on Thursday. (My daughter, for reasons I can’t remember, had Alexa play the song and spell the word, and I got to Googling about it, found the fun fact, etc., and cursed myself to a week’s worth of an earworm.) 

One of the great unheralded moments in any recent movie is this clip from Avengers: Infinity War. If you know the characters/scene, you don’t need an explanation. If you don’t, you have a lot of movies to watch. But the basics: one guy says that they need to go a planet called Nidavellir, another guy says that the first guy made up that word (“Nidavellir”), and the first guy points out that “all words are made up.” 

And I got to wonder: when does a mashup of letters and sounds become a word?

There’s really no perfect answer. Different dictionaries have different standards for inclusion, but in general, the rule-of-thumb is that if a “word” gets used often enough the same way by many people, the dictionaries may add it to their ledgers. Dictionaries, as a result, are records of what words are being used; they’re not coining words themselves. If you want to dig deeper, here’s Merriam-Webster’s criteria, here is the OED’s, and here is’s

So in a sense, dictionaries aren’t just reference books — they’re history books. That’s kind of neat. 

They don’t always agree, though; Oxford Dictionaries think that both “embiggen” and “cromulent” are perfectly cromulent words, but Merriam-Webster isn’t quite there yet; M-W agrees on “embiggen” but is still thinking about “cromulent.” 

The Now I Know Week in Review

MondayA Light Side Effect of the Pandemic: Why the coronavirus caused some bad reviews… for candles.

Tuesday: A Fishy Way to Get a Free Meal: But only if you share a name with a certain former outfielder for the then-California or Anaheim Angels. 

Wednesday: Supercalifragilisticexpialilawsuit: Say that ten times fast.

Thursday: Air Plane: A Wonderful gag gift.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “The Last Two Northern White Rhinos On Earth” (New York Times Magazine, 14 minutes, January 2021). A story of the end of a species, playing out in real-time.

2) “Inside the high-stakes world of designing for 911 operators” (Fast Company, 8 minutes, March 2021). Being a 911 operator is a very specialized job. 

3) “Mission Impastable” (Sporkful, very very long, March 2021). Dan Pashman, the host of the Sporkful podcast (which is “not for foodies, but for eaters) isn’t a fan of spaghetti — it doesn’t hold sauce well. And instead of just switching to some other shape, he decides to create his own. This is his podcast series — six episodes — detailing his adventure. 

Have a great weekend!