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Everybody, Let’s Grok

  I couldn’t resist playing around with the lyrics from “Jailhouse Rock”:

Let’s grok. Everybody, let’s grok.

If you’ve ever been a hippie or a flower child, you’ve probably read Stranger in a Strange Land, and you know that “grok” is a word invented by author Robert Heinlein that means “to understand  intuitively” and “to communicate sympathetically.” Heinlein was born 103 years ago today.

“Grok” has such a 60-ish feel that you would expect it to be almost completely forgotten today. Surprise – it’s listed in the American Heritage Dictionary and (bigger surprise) the Oxford English Dictionary. Somehow “grok” caught on, and it’s especially popular with computer users.

I don’t know how Heinlein felt about his word coinage, but he should have been proud. Anybody can create a new word, and most of us have done it. Your family probably has invented some silly, playful words that no one outside your special circle knows. But inventing a word that people actually want to use is another matter.

Anthony Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within, tried it with CANI, an acronym he invented that means “continuous and never-ending improvement.” He even trademarked the word. But you won’t find it at www.Dictionary.com, and a Google search produced only a couple of hits. But type in kaizen, the Japanese word that inspired Robbins, and you’ll get some 20 million hits.

Space considerations influence decisions about what goes into the dictionary and what doesn’t make it there. Dictionary makers haven’t yet cottoned on to the fact that the Internet offers unlimited space, allowing every conceivable word to be posted.

Here’s my nomination for a word that’s been dropped from most dictionaries but deserves to go back: peabody. It was a popular American dance in the early 1900s, and some people (I’m one) continue to dance it. It was the favorite dance of the Great One, Jackie Gleason. You’ll find Britannica and Wikipedia entries for peabody, but it’s not listed at www.Dictionary.com.

Does anyone want to guess how long new words like “staycation” (an at-home vacation) and “locavore” (a person who prefers locally grown foods) will be with us? I hear them often and would guess that they’ll stick around – but maybe not. Here’s a new word I came across this morning and really like: “post-Potter,” referring to the time since the first Harry Potter book was published.

Words come and go. More accurately, some words never get there, and some never go away.

Most important, words are fun. Try browsing words and their definitions, as I’ve been doing this morning, and you may find that an hour has slipped away without your even noticing it. Quite a testimony to the fascination of our wonderful language.

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