“Is there a word for the kind of fatigue that comes from looking at the news on your phone? Where it feels like, as you scroll, the life is just draining out of you?"
This is what I asked The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a pair of artists who frequently host pop-ups at unlikely locations like subway stations, museums and even climate talks in Paris. They sit behind a desk, donning eyeglasses (with no lenses, since they are a faux bureaucracy) and outdated safari outfits, engaging passersby in conversations about the way language shapes our understanding of the world.
The Bureau is an art project by Alicia Escott and Heidi Quante, whose mission is to explore and name modern feelings and experiences for which we currently don't have terms. "We’re using humor to talk about some of the hardest, darkest, most difficult things we’re living through as a species," Escott says.
Escott tells me that during one of the Bureau's recent "field studies" (or salons with hand-picked participants) exploring the experience of informational overload, the word "intramerged" was drafted. It describes the feelings that arise from scrolling through the "algorithmically curated images of black bodies bleeding or refugees fleeing next to images of friends, art openings or babies."
Quante, who looks lost in thought, says she'd like a more sinister-sounding word for what I'm describing and launches into a description of leeches. "Leeches have an anticoagulant, so that you don’t sense their presence," she explains. "They bleed you out, and you continue to bleed even after you remove them. Maybe that's similar.”
This is the brilliance with which The Bureau of Linguistical Reality works. Whether it's one-on-one, through "field studies," their "mobile field office" or online, the Bureau facilitates linguistic conversations so that—in naming our modern ailments, hopes and circumstances—we can take the first step in initiating a cultural shift.
Quante says, "How does social change happen? When an individual is not alone in their thinking, and a word unites their thinking to other people, and suddenly an experience is no longer a private thought, but a social concern. Now more than ever, we need neologisms for what we're going through socially, politically and environmentally."
The Bureau of Linguistical Reality has coined such urgently needed terms as "blissonance"(for when you are out in nature, feeling bliss, but you know you are potentially destroying the environment with your being there), "ennuipocalypse"(for a particularly slow doomsday that occurs on a day-to-day time scale) and "epoquetude"("the reassuring awareness that while humanity may succeed in destroying itself, the Earth will certainly survive us, as it has survived many other cataclysms”).
Quante's and Escott's backgrounds include social justice, environmentalism, human rights work, anthropology, language, design and art. Fittingly, they do not think of these practices as separate. "It’s not just CO2 in the air that is the problem," Escott says. "It's also histories of colonialism and capitalism. We point the finger at the underlying problem but not the disease. The way we treat each other, ourselves and the planet is all interconnected."
This effort for cross-pollinating thinking when it comes to reflecting on modern experience is something that makes The Bureaus' neologisms that much more special.
Quante tells me about an artist who wanted to coin a term for the experience of walking down the street as a black person in fear of getting jumped by a cop while others are proselytizing that climate change is the biggest challenge (and actively ignoring the fact that personal safety in the climate is the biggest challenge for black people). As is sometimes the case, the Bureau has been working on this word for some time. "I just thought that was so beautiful, and that is the power of language," she says. "You can create a word to educate people about your reality, and when you do, the burden of going through the experience is taken off, and someone outside that experience has the opportunity to understand it."
Coining new words is not the only effort The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is undertaking. They are also questioning old words. For example, they argue that climate change should be "climate chaos," and that the phrase "throw it away" should be retired all together. "There is no 'away,'" Quante explains. "By using this term, you’re creating a false idea of a mythic 'away.' Unless we change our we’re not breaking from the mistakes of our past."
"Related to that, we question why don't we have more words for our hope of the future?" Escott asks. "Our culture has all these words for doomsday—end of days, Armageddon, apocalypse—but the only word we have for a positive future in English is utopia, which comes hand in hand with dystopia. Neologisms are important, because words have the ability to change the shapes of our thoughts."
"Anyone can shape culture," Quante adds. "Language is a beautiful way for people to realize that."
The Bureau is seeking input on another ongoing and currently unnamed term. "The definition is this idea that you've received a misdiagnosis that you are mentally sick or ill, when the truth is that you’re a healthy, sentient being responding to a sick and ill society," Escott explains.
If this article gave you some ideas and you'd like to contribute to create this new word, The Bureau accepts submissions through their website for neologisms, definitions and an unlimited number of synonyms.
As for me, I think I am ready to submit a word for consideration. I looked up the root for leech. It is lyce. The root for news is nova. That feeling of the vampire drain that comes from looking at the news on your phone? Perhaps we can call it "lycenovascroll."
Catch the Bureau of Linguistical Reality at their Mobile Field Office at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Sept. 15–16.
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks.