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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to self-publicize, to plot your rise to fame and fortune

In 1836, an essay appeared in American Monthly, a journal dedicated to discussions of literature and the arts founded by the English-born author and scholar Henry William Herbert.

The author of the essay (who remained anonymous) bemoaned both a growing lack of imagination among English speakers to build and adopt new words, and the closed-mindedness of language purists, who shunned words adopted from other languages. To support their argument, the author coined a series of new words—psaphonism, psaphonize, psaphonific—based on a bizarre tale from the ancient world.

According to legend, Psapho was a humble man of Ancient Libya, who wished above all else to achieve great fame and wealth, and to wield great influence. In order to achieve his goal, he determined that he needed to make his name known among the people of Libya, and so took it upon himself to tame a vast flock of mimicking birds, and then train them to chatter the phrase ‘Psapho is a god’. He then set the birds free, and as they flew off across the surrounding country, they took Psapho’s self-aggrandizing message with them as they went.

His plan was an extraordinary success. The local people eventually accepted his name into their pantheon of gods, and when he finally made his identity known to them, Psapho was instantly adopted by the people as their king.

Based on this story, the author goes on to argue that this kind of boastful self-promotion should be known as psaphonism in Psapho’s honour; that the act of “schooling, bribing” and otherwise influencing the opinions of the people in this way should be described as psaphonific; and that Psapho’s name should likewise be immortalized in a verb, psaphonize, meaning “to puff one’s self in one’s own newspaper.”

(Despite writing almost two centuries ago, the author also, somewhat presciently, goes so far as to draw parallels with the role of the press in political elections: “Now if any one will diligently study all our newspapers,” they explain, “he will find about election seasons something in them analogous to the voices of Psaphon’s birds.”)

Unfortunately, none of these words has even gained much traction in the language. On the rare occasions that allusive references to Psapho do appear, they tend not to be used in reference to self-aggrandizement and bluster, but to Psapho’s determined attempt to achieve his goal, no matter how grand or ludicrous a scheme he would have to adopt.

A psaphonic plan, ultimately, is one built around achieving great success. Psaphonism is goal-driven, relentlessly ambitious behaviour. And to psaphonize is to plot your path to fame and fortune.

Taken from The Cabinet of Calm, OUT NOW

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