What’s In A Word? A Look At Neologism and Metaphore


Do the following sentences make sense to you?

“He wears his heart on his sleeve.”

“What’s wrong? Has the cat got your tongue?”

“She must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“I’ll bring the house down!”

Do these? Do they make you cringe? (I’m going to hate this part of the list.)



“Totes adorbs.”

“That is so crae.”

The first 4 items on this list are of course, metaphors. The last 4 are colloquial expressions called neologisms. A neologism is a new word or phrase coined to describe something. Often these are associated with new developments and inventions, such as the words “robot”, “computer”, “internet”, “noob”, and “google” when used as a verb meaning “search”. They often arise in particular regions of countries, like ice cream sprinkles being called “Jimmies” in Boston, Massachusetts. It can also be the new use of an existing word or phrase. In the psychological realm, it refers to this final part in particular, where an individual calls something a made up word of their own, or uses existing words in a way that only has meaning to them, independent of the common meaning of the words.

It’s kind of funny how these little expressions affect an individual with Asperger’s, or how Asperger’s affects them. We are at once confused and fascinated by these uses of language. It tends to be the case that we often miss the point of metaphor, taking the words to mean exactly what they say, or, where this seems utterly illogical, simply gathering no meaning from them at all.

“Raining cats and dogs? No it isn’t. What on earth do you mean?”

This often has the effect of us zoning out of a conversation, becoming lost in our own thoughts as we try to determine whether what was said by the other party was intended literally or as some illustrative expression. If we settle correctly upon the latter, now we have to use the surrounding context to try to discern the true meaning of the words. At this point, results may vary. We stand a chance of puzzling out the real meaning, something close enough, or of not determining any logical reason for why you are talking about spilled milk when we had been on a totally different subject.

My first exposure to “the cat having your tongue” was in Disney’s “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs”. When Grumpy stuck his tongue out at Snow White, I knew it was rude, but I also figured that he was showing her that his tongue was right where it belonged. Besides, didn’t she know the dwarfs didn’t own any cats?

I first heard of “bringing the house down” in MGM’s “The Pebble and The Penguin”. Rocko and Hubey are trapped aboard the good ship Misery, where Rocko is planning his escape. Hubey offers to create a distraction by acting foolish in hopes of Rocko helping him to escape too. He stumbles around and gets a pot stuck on his head causing Rocko to laugh. As the laughter continues, Hubey pulls the pot off his head and says,”I’ll bring the house down.” I assumed he meant he was good for more than just a funny diversion and that he could help break some object or something in order to facilitate escape.

The other two expressions at the beginning of this post also took me years to completely understand. I actually finally had to ask what it meant to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve just last year in order to lay the puzzle to rest.

Yet, it is generally noted that people on the spectrum often love wordplay, especially puns. Many of them are also master neologism inventors. So why is it that when other people use these facets of language we often do not understand their meaning?

I think it comes down to a few things, namely simplicity, logic, and a good deal of practice gained by just living life and being exposed to these phrases. Some idiomatic expressions are easier to understand than others. Similes, for example, are very much like metaphors, but they explain themselves by using the words “like” or “as”. It is relatively easy to understand that saying that a man is like a mountain indicates that he is very big, because that is the one quality of mountains that can be applied to a human being. Unless the man is the Thing from The Fantastic Four, in which case, the man is also rocky. But that’s a pretty infrequent occurrence.

So you see from the above example that a simple, self explanatory phrase that can be reasoned out logically stands a far better chance of transmitting its meaning to us.

Puns usually fall under this category, as they are quite simple. We aspies love puns, generally. But only the good ones. I think this is linked to the logical aspect of them. It is actually quite difficult to describe the ranking of puns from bad to good, but it seems to be linked to their cleverness and how naturally they flow, and both of these are likely subjective. But in any case, I know that I personally feel a sense of satisfaction from hearing or inventing a pun that makes logical sense and is easily understood, regardless of whether it induces laughter or moaning from other people.

PUN-ishing, isn't it?

PUN-ishing, isn’t it?

This is so much more enjoyable than being baffled by other expressions. Another thing we enjoy is our own neologisms.

Everyone invents words or uses them in a way unique to themselves as a very young child. It is considered a normal part of development. However, individuals on the spectrum often don’t quite let go of the habit as they age.

In his book, “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome“, Tony Attwood describes the unique use of language employed by a few aspies. One child created the word ‘snook’ for a flake of chocolate frozen in ice. Another, when making his bedroom messy, with toys strewn about, explained that he was ‘tidying down’, the opposite of tidying up. Attwood’s own adult sister-in-law has Asperger’s, and she called ice cubes ‘water bones’ and her ankles ‘the wrists of her feet.’

I identify well with this, as I often still call my ankles ‘legwrists’, and croutons have been ‘crunchies’ ever since I was small. In an effort to amuse no one other than myself, I often invent complex names with a scientific air to them for simple things, such as calling sunglasses ‘cosmic radiation shields’, or a pen an ‘inscription apparatus’. When walking away from a group I will often say that I’m going to ‘mosey’, ‘meander’, or ‘locomote’, instead of simply excusing myself. I love choosing odd, silly sounding, archaic, or complex words and phrases to describe things.

This does sometimes get me into trouble. For example, I tend to view most adjectives describing quality as existing on a sort of spectrum, with the words like “horrible” at one end, “glorious” at the opposing end, and a slew of less forceful words such as “nice” or “mediocre” occupying spaces between, either on one side or the other of a middle line separating those that can be used to describe good things from those that describe bad things.

This led me once to use “tolerable” as a compliment, as I figured anything that was glorious was also tolerable, because any word in the far reaches of the good side of the scale easily includes the definitions of the words not as far into that side. Needless to say, that didn’t pan out so well.

On another occasion, I complimented a girl (Currently my closest friend, and someday more. A subject for another post.) on her hair. She had just gotten it dyed and done up in a new style that was very pretty. My compliment?

“Nice headsprouts.”

I can sense at least some of you cringing through the internet. In my mind, I was being kind, sweet, humorous, and not too forward, all at once with the air that my acquaintances had come to know only me for. In her mind, I didn’t really like the hairdo.

I had no idea she was truly offended until some time later when we were at an amusement park with some companions and she was relating the story to one of them. She wasn’t gossiping or putting me down. By this time she had just accepted it as an oddity of mine and took it in good humor. But it was not until this time that I realized her feelings had been hurt. So I did apologize to her there, and she warmly forgave me.

Fortunately it ended up being a subject of good humor, but it still takes some effort on my part to ensure that I use words as compliments only if the recipient understands them as such too.

In the end, this is one feature of Asperger’s that I don’t think will ever change. And do you know what? I don’t want it to. This aspect of us lends a certain unique quality to our identities and our presence in groups and conversations. Sometimes it is awkward and clumsy, but there are people who find our confusion with common language endearing in a way, and it is fun to laugh and joke with them. Additionally, our use of neologism provides us with an opportunity to toss the confusion back on the neurotypical world on occasion, and again, with the right people around, this can be great fun.

Or it can be great fun on your own, as you drive your ‘combustion powered transport’ down the road into the sunlight, smiling to yourself as you don your ‘cosmic radiation shields’.

The Aspiring Aspergian

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