When I was young, I dreamt of inventing an expression that would gain popularity and then—like an oddly marked bill—return to me from a stranger. I was naïve enough to believe that I could come up with something new and naïve enough to imagine saying, “Hey, I invented that” and have someone believe me.
So, for a couple of weeks, I started telling friends I felt “rossy” when I was tired or called money “smackaruvian smackers.” Some of my tries were attached to popular culture, so “to be gilliganed” was to be ostracized or left out, “to be kimbled” was to be unjustly accused, and being “warholly” meant you sought momentary attention.
If these expressions circled back—I wonder if I would trust they were mine?
I still think about how one person may have come up with the phrases we use. Some statements seem so strange someone must be the author. About the time I was experimenting with new language, I heard a character in a cartoon say “23 skidoo!” The meaning is clear enough—“scram” or “let’s get on with it”—but I couldn’t help thinking, why “skidoo” and, particularly, why the number 23, instead of, say, 16 or 3,897.
Then, reading a guidebook about New York a few years ago, I ran into the answer. The Manhattan Flatiron building on 23rd street diverted winds so dramatically it blew women’s skirts up. Gawkers gathered to see it happen, and a beat cop stationed there moved them along, saying…well, you know what he said.
Granted, “23 skidoo” isn’t “It’s raining cats and dogs,” but will do as a demonstration that one person, like that butterfly wing in Tokyo—who came up with that?—can release an eddy that makes a tornado and more.
Once you understand the disproportionate effect of a single act of creativity, invention becomes something nearly mystical, an unmoved mover close to divinity. Sometimes I walk to work, can smell a cigarette, and see no one smoking. I think diffusion of creation must work the same way—we know the effect, seldom the cause. The cause can seem to come from a sort of spirit world entirely invisible to us. Even if we find the exact source, other unseen sources are behind it. Perhaps “skidoo” wasn’t the beat cop’s at all. Maybe the double-o suffix came from a grandmother in London. Maybe the wind gets all the credit.
As philosophers have asked since Aristotle, what causes itself?
The internet is the ultimate diffusion experiment. I wonder what use people make of what they find, where it travels next and whether it will travel far enough to be untraceable. Over a thousand people might visit a single image. How long does it take before those images drift out there carrying no name or another name?
Teaching history demonstrates how hard it is to reach back. No one’s arm seems long enough. We would like to be able to name the first time someone suggested a solution or to see the moment a new idea came to whose mind. We like to know what we can’t.
In a similar sense, you understand why people want ownership of art, not in the egotistical way I wanted to be warholly, not for credit, but for rectitude, to anchor an image or words, to keep them in this solid and real world. We want to freeze our creations when, really, not a molecule will ever be entirely still or still in the same place, moment to moment.
How can we even know if what we say is ours or the transmutation of something before, another leg on a relay that never really started? Can we know what we’ve truly invented when every moment is another creation, when every breath starts another eddy? What does it mean to be original if originality itself was an impulse someone indulged for the first time long ago, the first word of the last ape?