Here's a word on words

Terms: Adam Hanft hopes his `Dictionary of the Future' will give pop culture new meanings.

January 22, 2002|By Denise Flaim | Denise Flaim,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sitting across from the antique English gout chair, surrounded by majolica cheesekeeps and an Art Nouveau slipper box, Adam Hanft offers up a few of his favorite phrases of the future.

"Secondhand speech" is one. Inspired by "secondhand smoke," it refers to too-loud cell phone conversations. You can relate.

"I like it because it fills a need," explains Hanft, a marketing executive and cultural critic, whose object-filled home in New York is an apt metaphor for his most recent collection, this one of words: the recently released Dictionary of the Future (Hyperion, $22.95).

But unlike the artfully arranged ocean of folk art and antiques that fill Hanft's home in Sands Point, a community on Long Island, this book is a collection that doesn't quite exist yet. Among the assemblage of words are some that are floating unnoticed in cyberspace, and others that have yet to be coined.

A sort of Tomorrowland of words, the book is co-authored by noted "futurologist" Faith Popcorn, who is also a onetime colleague and longtime friend of Hanft and his wife, Flora. "She made our engagement party 28 years ago," the 51-year-old says with a smile.

In working on the book, his goal was to find terms and trends that are on the cusp of the culture -- or ought to be. Among the entries is "yogurt cities," a reference to places where baby boomers will go to retire and where the draw is, ahem, "active cultures."

Then there's "free-range children"; like the chickens, they are relentlessly unprogrammed, unencumbered by rigid schedules of soccer practices and violin lessons.

"Words are artifacts of culture," says Hanft, and in writing the book he was "looking at ways that forces in culture shape language."

Just as the mores and social forces of the day subtly influence the painter's strokes or the carver's gouges, so too they inform the words and phrases we use.

Some of the words in Dictionary of the Future dive straight out of popular culture, such as "modelizer." That term for a man who dates models -- or wants to -- started in an episode of HBO's Sex and the City. Other words should have existed but didn't, so Hanft made them up, like "admirenvy." There was a "vacant place in the language," he explains, for a word to describe that dubious mix of sincere admiration and outright jealousy.

Though some might think it presumptuous for a dictionary to make up words, there is historical precedent. In the book, Hanft cites the example of 16th-century English author Sir Thomas Elyot, who was "convinced that the English vocabulary was starved for originality, so he did the only logical thing: He expanded it." Five hundred years later, we have Elyot to thank for such linguistic linchpins as "involve," "exactly" and "democracy."

Many of the Dictionary terms rely on inspiration from other established cultural catch phrases. Consider, for example, "desk potato" (for pencil-pushing workaholics) or "spouse potato" (for those too lethargic to get out of a lousy marriage).

Hanft, who came up with the idea for the book two years ago and wrote and researched the bulk of it, says a handful of entries came from the book's Web site.

Though Hanft and Popcorn consulted experts in various fields, from medicine to marketing, they were more valuable in vetting phrases and helping validate the terms and trends the two were forecasting. Most of the book, Hanft says, came from his own Internet surfing and pop-culture perusing.

"To do this, you need a kind of self-destructive quality of intellectual curiosity," says Hanft of the process. "It's very Zen. You have to learn how to listen."

At first, he worried he wouldn't have enough words to fill the book. By the end, with more than 1,000 entries, he had to cut.

The real test of Dictionary of the Future will be to see how many of its entries bridge the gap into the present. Hanft keeps a list he calls DOF in the News, chronicling those that have popped up in the press. Many of them are trends and technologies that the book notes.

Hanft points to a recent Information Week report on a "personal awareness assistant," or PAA, that will record your interactions to create a digital scrapbook of your life. Dictionary, Hanft notes, predicts that "personal archivist" -- "a kind of life editor" -- will be a new job category.

"Parts of it will probably appear more broadly faster, and others will take longer to appear," says Hanft, who figures that the shelf life of many of the book's entries should span "a good two to three years, maybe more."

And if words like "bureauclout" and "brandlash" don't creep into the 6 o'clock newscast anytime soon, Hanft finds inspiration in this quote from author William Gibson: "The future is here -- it's just not evenly distributed."

Denise Flaim is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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