Unexpected Words I
Bill Long 9/2/08
Snivelization and Mafufunyana
These two words are so unexpected in the OED that I simply had to stop and give them each a long look. The first was invented by Herman Melville in 1849, and the latter is a rare Xhosa/Zulu term for madness or hallucinations. But what both these words do is introduce us to worlds which are either suggestive or so foreign from our "normal" world that we just want to stop, listen and learn.
Melville used the term in Redburn His First Voyage (1849) to describe civilization "considered derisively as a cause of anxiety" (OED). Mark Twain used the same word (in a different way) in a work written in 1892 but not published until the 1960's.. Professor William M. Gibson argues ("Snivelization," American Speech 49 (1974), 303-04) that Twain had probably not heard of Melville's use of the word. Let's first talk about Melville's coinage. Two members of the crew of Highlander are having a vigorous debate about the competing virtues of civilization and savagery. "Gun-Deck" (a character's name) talks about the delights of the civilized world around the Mediterranean while Larry, a former whaleman, wistfully longs for the pleasures of nakedness, eating, sleeping and smoking tobacco in "Madagasky." After praising wild places in the Indian Ocean, Larry says:
"I tell ye, ye wouldn't have been to sea here, leadin' this dog's life, if you hadn't been snivelized--that's the cause why, now. Snivelization has been the ruin on ye; and it's spiled me complete...! Blast Ameriky, I say," p. 101.
Civilization, then, becomes snivelization because of its ability to wear people down, make them anxious and make them weak.
Mark Twain wrote the word several years later--on the first page of a manuscript he entitled "Affeland," of which 22 pages survive today. In the mind of his 1967 editor, Twain used the term to satirize contemporary (1890s) civilization. Gibson says that Twain, enchanted by the similarity in appearance between "f" and the "old" long "s," used Affeland as a humorous misrepresentation of Asseland. In 1897, a few years after this partial manuscript is dated, Twain penned "The Chronicle of Young Satan" whose setting was in Eseldorf, the German equivalent of "ass land." Well, the hero of the "Affeland/asseland" fragment is Albert. He discovers the land of asses to be an aristocracy of titled monkeys (sounds like Twain, doesn't it?) and tries to speak to them about the virtues of modern democracy. We can't really tell everything about Twain's mind on the term from this fragment, but we can see the humor behind the name.
This brief study of snivelization is interesting both because it shows how great writers could "invent" a suggestive term independently of each other and because it gives us two different ways to use the term. One stresses the ability of the civilization to wear us down and "make us snivelers" (my words), while the other is just a satirical word to describe the "modern world." After thinking about both of them for a moment, however, I would like to expand its meaning. Rather than something that "makes one snivel" or "whine," I would look at snivelization as the collective or the group of people who whine about everything. Just look around you. You see people complaining about everything you can imagine, from the paucity and poor quality of their creature comforts to the place of the US in the world to the decline of the dollar to their distress at the stock market to their complaints over restaurant food to their moaning about their co-workers. The collective body of people who complain about everything would be called, in my view, snivelization. It emphasizes that so many folks are a bunch of whiners, who rarely focus on how good we have it and only want to look at the bleak side of things.
I couldn't help but write about this term for three reasons: because it is a (rare) Xhosa/Zulu word, it appears in the OED, and it has fewer than 100 attestations in a "Google" search, which means that it is almost non-existent in literature. So why would the OED have picked it up, when it is usually so reluctant to embrace "native" terms? Well, this note gives us some hints. It says that in 2000 the editors of the OED decided to reach out to some peoples and words from around the world as part of the first extensive revision of the dictionary since 1928. They decided to begin with the "M's" rather than another letter because there was a "consistent editorial style" in the "m's" from the earlier version. Four of the new "m" words introduced in 2000 were "Macoute," "maginnis," "mack" and our friend mafufunyana. Perhaps because the editors began with "M" they included the spelling mafufunyana rather than the more usual amafufunyana.
By the way, Macoute is a Haitain term for a bad man, maginnis is an obsolete Australian word for a certain wrestling hold, and mack, which we in the States know well, is an American word meaning a "smooth" or seductive talker. Actually, when my dad used the word mack to describe someone when I was growing up in the NYC area, it was a sort of derogatory term to describe an impertinent or pushy person.
Returning to Mafufunyana
Back to mafufunyana. Mafufunyana brings us into the world of psychology and mental health in a non-Western society. Indeed, I managed to track down a Master's Thesis (next essay) which compares traditional Xhosa mental health practitioners with the Western understanding of mental illness...
But let's just see how the word mafufunyana opens a world up to us. The OED calls it a Zulu term, and it first appeared in an English document in 1952: "Mafufunyana is widely feared and results often in death, being an especially powerful form of self-hypnosis, induced by an acute sense of guilt." From 1970 we have: "I am going to send her Mafufunyana--the madness that causes one to see chimpanzees." Or, from 1978: "[She] told the court she was being treated for mafufunyana (hallucinations) and that evil spirits drove her to do things against her will."
Thus, the linguistic field of mafufunyana includes a sort of madness or hallucinations that are thought to be brought about by the workings of evil powers. But once we are introduced to mafufunyana, we are intrigued to know a little bit more about the shape of the Zulu/Xhosa consciousness, especially as it relates to issues which we in the West call "mental health" issues. By looking up mafufunyana and amafufunyana on the web, I managed to fall into a lot more terms and realities. The next essay brings you into that.