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From here till nano-eternity: The biggest little word-maker

Mark Peters, the genius behind the blog Wordlustitude in addition to being a Contributing Editor for Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, and a language columnist for Babble, and the author of Yada, Yada, Doh!: 111 TV Words That Made the Leap from the Screen to Society is our guest blogger this week. Check out his past OUPblog posts here. In the post below Peters explores the word “nano”.

Ever been called a nano-brained nitwit who knows nano-squat about nano-something-or-other?

Probably not, but even if the only nano you know is your iPod, very little training is required to coin or understand words like nano-squat, nano-brained, and nano-something-or-other.

But before we get to such nano-tomfoolery, a little nano-history: Literally, nano means one thousand-millionth. The OED traces this meaning back to nanophanerophyte and nanoplankton—loan words from French and German spotted in 1907 and 1912 respectively. Since the forties, nano has been producing plenty o’ new words, including the OED-recorded nanoamp, nanoequivalent, nanodevice, nanowatt, nanotube, and nanohenry (that’s a tiny measurement, not a tiny Hank, for readers about as science-savvy as yours clueless). Recent news stories have featured nano-catalytic, nano-cavities, nano-fabrication, nano-needles, nano-optics, nano-sensor, and nano-silica. How many nanobots can build robo-condos on the head of a pin is yet to be determined, but there’s definitely a scientific nano-word for every one of them.

Likewise, nano has been a busy little prefix in the colloquial regions of the language, meaning either 1) The inverse of a metric bazillion-load or 2) shorthand for nanotechnology. Though the slangification of nano goes back to at least 1966 and a New Scientist article that mentioned a nanoskirt, the use of nano as a slangy prefix is still uncommon enough to feel fresh and minty, yet common enough for me to squeeze an article out of it. Plus, nano-slang encompasses a positively robust bunch of words—including indefinite words, fanciful neologisms, insults, and exaggerations—and those words deserve more than a tiny paragraph at the end of the OED’s nano entry.

Indefinite words—such as thingamajig and hickeymadoodle—are evidence that us talking apes will never stop talking, no matter how little we know about the object of our words. Indefinite nano-words tend to play on the mysteriousness of nano-technology to Joe and Josephine Average. These include nanoanything, nanoblahblah, nanodoohickey, nanomajig, nanosomethingorother, and nano-whatsit. My favorite comes from a Bionic Woman thread on Television Without Pity: “And in what universe would the girlfriend of one of the scientists ever be a candidate for nano-bionic-Whateverization?”

Nano-bionic-whateverization—which just might make my top-ten-favorite-words-ever list, against a competitive field—is also part of the next category: fanciful word coined for humorous purposes, especially silly contrivances imagined by bloggers and other web-wordsters. Even in Battlestar Galactica’s fraked-up world of Cylons, a nano-cylo-std is imaginary— that’s short for nano-Cylon-sexually transmitted disease, for the innocent of hard drive. I also haven’t been able to locate a nano-douche-bot or nano-destructo-mat at Wal-Mart yet, though perhaps it’s my shopping skills that are to blame. Similar examples include nano-ooze, nano-puddle, nano-slime, nano-werewolf, and nano death ray blower upper thingy —not to be confused with the equally practical nano death ray of doom. Also just in time for Christmas is the green-glowing-nano-slime-ammo-pack, which could prove a useful addition to anyone’s utility belt.

Then there are nano-insults, a category close to my 12-year-old heart. The OED lists a lovely one from a 1983 Verbatim article—“a microcephalic, nanocerebral ninnyhammer”— a favorite epithet of the late lexicographer Laurence Urdang. Erin McKean recalls Urdang’s words in paraphrased form in a Facebook update on Sept. 4, 2008, as his “habit of describing people as ‘cretinous, nanocerebral, gormless ninnyhammers.’” At lunch with Erin recently, she remember the insult as nanocephalic, providing even more ammo for wordsmiths at the technical journals and playgrounds.

As with Urdang’s examples, most nano-insults diminish body parts or qualities, especially those that opinion polls suggest should be massive and ginornous enough to properly shine glory on America: nano-balled, nanoboobs, nano-brained, nano-mannered, nano-minded, nano-schlong, nano-souled, nano-testicles, and nano-wand of love fit this pattern. There’s plenty of room for mixed meanings, and the different senses of nano can be hard to parse. Nano-minded can mean small-minded, or it could mean overly obsessed with the iPod nano, which clearly boosted the stock of the word nano as well as the company Apple. Then there NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, which is popular enough to inspire insults such as nanofailure and nano-lame-o. I’ve tried to keep these senses of nano out of my carpet and this article, but I’ve probably misjudged one or two.

Along with insulting and soccer, exaggerating is a popular sport worldwide, and nano has been a solid exaggeration-maker for years, particularly in the common word nanosecond, which was first used hyperbolically back in 1965, in a W.H. Auden poem: “Translated in a nano-second / To a c.c. of poisonous nothing / In a giga-death”. Some writers take nano-second a step further with nano-minute, nano-moment, nano-inch, and nano-ounce, while others have coined nano-intestines, nano-jot, nano-qualm, and nano-sleaze.

Occasionally, exaggerations do a quadruple backflip off the diving board of language and land in deeper waters, where unlimber minds reach haplessly for a floatie of meaning. I’m thinking of a word that’s so delightful it makes my toes quiver a little: nano-eternity. Here are a few uses of this oxymoron for the ages, this restaurant-quality Zen koan:

Each second became a nano-eternity. He visualized all the faces. All the lies. All the broken hearts.
(Aug. 6, 2004, Literotica Discussion Board,)

Plus It would give me something to look at while I’m waiting a nano-eternity for a the Brooks Bros logo to load…
(Nov. 1, 2007, Dealbreaker,)

Her eyes met his and for a nano-eternity her entire being, her self, was eaten by her son’s blank, black, depthless eyes.
(2008, Ten Nails the E-Book,)

Christ on a crouton, what a word! What a concept.

I’m no eternity-ologist, but I would think that one thousand-millionth of eternity would be… eternity, right? So is a nano-eternity short or long? Is it full of pain or pleasure? Paper or plastic? Am I a dude dreaming I’m a goliath bird-eating spider, or am I a goliath bird-eating spider dreaming I’m a dude?

Nano-eternity… Now that’s a word, folks. I could ponder it for a nano-eon or two, and I hope you’ll sprinkle it liberally in your tasteful erotica, Italian sonnets, and campaign speeches.

Recent Comments

  1. geek

    The new Ipod Nano is like Sarah Palin.

    Nice looking package but not as competent as others available.

    Apparently her daughter is I touch.

  2. [...] half of Cylon is minimally productive, but it can influence words like cybrid and, as I mentioned last month, the rather nonromantic nano-cylo-std, which, sources say, can be cured by slamming your modem in [...]

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