Charles Dickens invented the word boredom. Sylvia Plath coined the term dreamscape. William Shakespeare gave us bandit, swagger, and gossip, along with over 1,700 other words that previously didn’t exist in the English lexicon.
Writers have a long history of inventing new words, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. When we encounter an idea or concept and no clear way to express it, creating new language is a practical solution.
Plus, making up new words is fun.
But we’re not limited to inventing new words. Poets, in particular, are always looking for fresh ways to use language. Consider the following lines from E.E. Cummings’ poem, “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”:
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
Cummings also played with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The lack of spacing around the parenthesis is not a typo!
Let’s look more closely at the phrase “down they forgot as up they grew.”
It’s not a conventional way to arrange words. Cummings flouted conventional syntax with the word order (“up they grew” instead of “they grew up”), and he combined words in surprising ways (“down they forgot”).
We know that according to the rules of our language, this excerpt shouldn’t make sense, especially the notion of “forgetting down,” yet as we read the lines of the poem, we know exactly what the poet is saying.
That’s the magic of wordplay in poetry.
Poetry Exercise: Creative Wordplay
Today’s poetry writing exercises encourage you to invent fresh and interesting words and phrases by using language in unexpected ways. To get started, you’ll need some words to work with, so make four lists of about a dozen words each:
- Nouns (examples: cat, sky, food)
- Adjectives (examples: blue, jolly, flat)
- Verbs (examples: dance, squat, bite)
- Suffixes and prefixes: (examples: non-, anti-, -er)
Once you’ve got some words to work with, you can start playing with them. As you work through the steps below, don’t confine yourself to the words you’ve pre-selected. Bring new words into your lists as needed or as you feel inspired to do so.
- Combine one of the nouns with one of the suffixes or prefixes to form a new word (example: desker).
- Combine any two words to form a new word (example: jollysquat).
- Turn one of the nouns into a verb and use it in a sentence (example: They’re catting through the club).
- Use an adjective as an adverb in a phrase or sentence (example: She’s running blue).
- Rearrange the words in one of the sentences or phrases you’ve written (example: Through the club they’re catting).
You can repeat these exercises infinitely, always bringing new words and ideas into the mix. You’ll find that the more time you spend on creative exercises like these, the more your mind will open to experimental language and wordplay.
Can you think of any other strange and interesting ways to combine words? What about common expressions that already use words in unconventional ways, like using a preposition as a verb (“We’re upping the ante”)? Did you find any words or combinations that worked especially well for this exercise? Share your wordplay by leaving a comment, and keep writing!