I’m a Word: The Short, Happy Life of “NEEN”

31 Jan 2010

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”
~Charles Peguy

My local supermarket has this nifty machine that spits out a kind of large rice cake. A worker puts some grains, sea salt, and magic into a bin, and after a minute of hot pressure there’s a satisfying pop, pop, pop, and out fly these bumpy discs of blandness that are then stacked, put into transparent bags, and tied up with silver twisties. I actually bought some of the things once, but they’re really not very good, and certainly not filling. In fact, if it weren’t for the pneumatic thrill that draws the crowds, they probably wouldn’t sell.

Words are sometimes created in the same way. Certain new concepts can become salient enough, for whatever reason, to start demanding a word or phrase to come along and make them human, and when this nameless idea reaches a certain critical mass, something generally does rush in. It’s like Shakespeare’s Henry V, yelling, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” Or, in our case, with English syllables and stock metaphors. And a fine, rustic job they usually make of it:

Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not…

It’s a kind of linguistic vacuum, which we know that nature abhors.

Some people, though, just can’t wait for nature to get down to work. Fitzgerald, for instance, was compelled to coin a new word for his exquisite ending to The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . .

He was later to defend his word against editors who thought it was a typo, claiming that “it expresses exactly the intended ecstasy.” And Lewis Carroll stitched together his portmanteau words for Jabberwocky to such great effect that one of them—”chortle”—is now in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, which guesses that it is “probably” a combination of “chuckle” and “snort,” but they’re not quite sure. Carroll knew that it’s not that simple, that consciousness simply cannot shrinkwrap words like “vorpal,” “mimsy,” and “slithy” into a bundle of utilitarian consciousness.

Ecstacic, frabjous days were probably not on the mind of the artist Miltos Manetas when he came up with the word “neen.” Well, actually, a computer at Lexicon Branding came up with it, back in 2000. Manetas had decided there was an artistic concept dangling out there in the cultural void somewhere without a safety net, and he had hired Lexicon to devise an appropriate name, either because he could not think of one himself (being a digital artist), or because he knew that Lexicon was one of the premier branding companies in the world, having completed “more than 2,500 projects in categories as diverse as high technology to beverages,” which admittedly spans quite a chasm.

Lexicon, in other words, is in the business of inventing brands that will burn into the cultural skin. They are behind such “billion dollar brands” as Intel, Febreze, BlackBerry, PowerBook, Dasani, Centrino, Evista, Embassy Suites, and the feisty little Swiffer:

Ready Mop announces, “I’m a mop.”

Swiffer responds, “I’m a new floor-cleaning technology.”

Even among their few fans, mops lack glamour. Swiffer rejects mop-hood in favor of a more exciting identity.

The name uses uniqueness to point to its inventive technology and peppy sounds to suggest that it cleans quicker than anything that came before. At the same time, it expresses allegiance to traditional mop values by sounding similar to the term “sweeper.”

Rejecting mop-hood while still saluting traditional mop values is a tough balancing act, as any entrenched politician would tell you, so Lexicon uses consumer research and teams of experts—including “a global team of 77 in-country Ph.D. linguists”—to make sure they generate a collection of sounds that leave the factory floor dressed to impress.

So “neen” was rolled out during an event at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Having been conceived by a computer, it was announced by a lone Sony Vaio (not, as far as I know, a Lexicon brand), to a specially invited group of media elites, including the New York Times, which titled its story, And Now, a Word From Outer Space.

There was also a panel of intellectual celebrities on hand, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who wrote about “neen” in his book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Pinker predicted the word would fail to catch on, since “most conspicuous coinages fail no matter what,” and because all of neen’s N’s and E’s made for pretty annoying phonesthetics.

And the word is rather unpleasant, at least when said out loud. Visually, it’s not bad, nice and compact in a techno-replicative sort of way. Manetos himself says it’s “a palindrome (like Dada),” which, of course, is not a palindrome, unless you write it over and over again, ad infinitum. “Neen” might simply be riding on the coattails of both “Dada” and Dada, a kind of gilt by association.

Ceci n'est pas un mot.

“Neen” is also a portmanteau of nano, screen, and several other hardware-related words that have arisen during the past few years. And the subtle aroma of more recent internet jargon rises from it, words like “lede,” “meme,” and “moot” (which makes me suspect that language had been Rickrolled about 3 years before 4chan was ever unleashed).

The problem with “neen,” though, is not that the emperor has ugly clothes, but that there was never much of an emperor to begin with. What does the word mean? Well, it’s difficult to say, but there are some clues. According to its Manifesto (yes, it was born with one of those, like a trust fund),

NEEN stands for NEENSTERS: a still undefined generation of visual artists. Some of them may belong to the contemporary art world; others are software creators, web designers and videogame directors or animators.

And in an interview with John Glassie at Salon, Manetos said neen is “not exclusively about technology in art, but more about the style, about the psychological landscape…We have two kind of lives now—a real life and a simulated one. I wanted to give a name to this psychology.” Neen deals with the playful nature of digital creation, work done for its own sake and because the artist just likes doing it: “There is a simple factor for somebody to be Neen: He should not have a job. It’s not enough, but it’s a beginning. But he should not live a miserable life either.” Figure that one out.

It is also transitory. In fact, “neen” happens to be an old Greek word meaning, “new,” and Manetas likes to contrast it with another Greed idea—Telic—which refers to the purpose-driven aspect of work, to things and actions that are tools that achieve a goal, such as the act of driving to someplace as supposed to just, well, driving. Telic is what society considers serious and valuable; neen is play in the immediate present. Telic is the pan; neen is the flash. At the end of the Neen Manifeso, it says, “to be continued,” and, of course, it never was.

A neat concept, and one that appeals to my own sense of beauty and value. (Some cool Neenster work can be found at www.superneen.com.) Unfortunately, though, it never appealed to a sufficiently large segment of the language community, and it only turns up 2 results when Googled. “The defining of the Zeitgeist,” writes artnet’s Max Henry, “requires a powerful and resonant word, one that jibes with the frequency of its epoch. Neen is not the finding of the intellectual Holy Grail…” What Manetas found was a boutique idea, with a mosquito-ish name and a cesarean birth.

Lexicon’s web site, oddly enough, says it best:

The single most important value of a name is its storytelling ability. And to tell a good story, you must do three things; Get their attention. Make it interesting. Tell them something new.

You must also watch your syntax and punctuation, but that’s not Lexicon’s job. And the site offers up an old chestnut from American Literature:

Mark Twain once wrote that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” We agree.

So do I. But Twain also wrote, “Words realize nothing, verify nothing to you, unless you have suffered in your own person the thing which the words try to describe.” And we must assume that when he wrote “suffer,” he meant it. I wonder how often that word comes up at a Lexicon brainstorming session?

All words are hardened puffs of air, emerging with a more or less meaningful pop, both when they are first born and each time they are used. Some come from the dark recesses of the machine, where they have had time to steep in both the sea salt and the native soil. But others, blowing in from the telic world of consciousness and over-obvious intention, simply sparkle and float around.

So maybe the definition of “neen” is simply the circus that surrounded its birth: an art installation involving linguistics, consumer branding, a lot of self-referential publicity, and a manifesto of individual control over the modes of communication. Then it went away.

Which is, I guess, very neen.



One Response to “I’m a Word: The Short, Happy Life of “NEEN””

  1. Catalina Giangrandi Says:

    is not Manetos is Miltos Manetas

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