When writers create new vocabulary, their words turn into a written memory that crosses time and borders. They become a treasure for the generations to enjoy, and sometimes other languages can adopt them as they are or create similar coinages of their own. Who do you think was one of the most prolific generators of new words in English?
Among the most prolific generators of new words in English, Shakespeare comes first with words like accommodation, eventful, manager, dauntless, etc., followed by John Milton, who is credited with new coinages like enjoyable, fragrance, or terrific. Other famous authors can be mentioned in this context, including Geoffrey Chaucer (universe, approach), Ben Johnson (rant, petulant), or John Donne (self-preservation, valediction).
The power of vocabulary in written and verbal communication is obvious when we look at the way people express themselves. Every culture develops its own language and vocabulary, and in the process, new words are needed to denote a new thought, concept, object, or idea. When these new words appear they are called neologisms, but in time they become part and parcel of our daily routine.
Several ways of creating neologisms are at work every day, and here some of the most effective and productive: We make a new word from an old one by adding a prefix or suffix: hyperlink, or we just put two words together: daydream. Sometimes we use the name of a person or a place and change them into a word: diesel. When words are too long, we make our speech faster and words shorter: curio. Noises and sounds may also turn into words: tick-tock. A recent development has created vocabulary by blending the meanings of two words: Internet.
In a historical perspective, here is a sample of neologisms arranged chronologically by the time they appeared, the items in question, and of course the authors who coined them.
In 1516 Sir Thomas More used utopia for the first time. The new word was a combination of two Greek words: ou (‘not’) and topos (‘place’) – ‘nowhere.’
Francois Rabelais (around 1590s) described a giant in his book entitled Gargantua, in which the main character was a person with a voracious appetite. In time the word extended its meaning to define almost anything that is enormous in size, volume or degree.
Blatant, meaning something obvious, was coined by the English poet Edmund Spenser in his 1590s epic poem Faerie Queene, an allegorical work of fantasy.
In 1667 John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost contained the new word pandemonium, which he created to describe a palace built in the middle of Hell.
Unlike the internet search engine that started in 1994, the original word (meaning ‘a brute in human form’) can be found in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 work entitled Gulliver’s Travels.
In a letter addressed to Horace Mann dated January 28, 1754, Horace Walpole used serendipity, a word he coined to describe pleasant and unexpected discoveries.
The term malapropism comes from the character of Mrs. Malaprop, famous for her blunders in the use of words. Richard Sheridan used it for the first time in his play entitled The Rivals.
The term international was first used by Jeremy Bentham, who coined the word in his work An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1780.
Freelance was first used in the early 1800s when Sir Walter Scott used the word in his novel Ivanhoe, meaning a medieval mercenary willing to fight for whoever paid them most.
The French philosopher Charles Fourier used the term féminisme when he was talking about empowering women in 1837.
In March 1834 English polymath William Whewell suggested the word scientist as a replacement for terms like natural philosopher or man of science. People say that Charles Darwin left on The Beagle as a Natural Philosopher and returned as a Scientist.
Karel Capek, (1880 – 1938) introduced the word robot in his ply R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots. The term comes from an Old Church Slavonic word, rabota, which means servitude of forced labor.
A Whodunit mystery is a story (that describes a crime) with a fantastic appeal on readers.
“According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term ‘WhoDunIt’ was coined by News of Books reviewer Donald Gordon in 1930.”
Dr. Seuss initially coined the word nerd in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo.
Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction author is credited with the first use of ‘beep’ to describe the electronic tone from a computer, in his first novel, The Sands of Mars, in 1951.
In 1958 Herb Caen (of The San Francisco Chronicle) invented the term beatnik by combining the Beat Generation and half of the Russian Satellite Sputnik.
In 1958 Sylvia Plath wrote a poem entitled The Ghost’s Leavetaking in which she used the word dreamscape for the first time.
The word workaholic was coined by psychologist Wayne Oates in 1971 from the noun work plus the second element derived from alcoholic.
“Factoid” was a term created by Norman Mailer in 1973 for an assumption that is repeated until it becomes accepted as a fact.
Cyberspace was made by combining half of cybernetics + space byscience fiction novelist William Gibson in his 1982 book Burning Chrome.
Consider, if you will, that you are enjoying a piece of interesting writing in your local newspaper. What makes the reading so appealing may be the story itself or it may be the choice of words used to carry the message to your craving heart. Ford Madox Ford once said that good writing exhibits a constant succession of small surprises. That’s why journalists and writers, among others, are also magicians and they know how to appeal to the senses of ordinary readers. This is how journalists invented words like Catch-22 or soundbite and published authors came up with terms like boredom or twitter.
About the Author
Dan Manolescu is a freelance ESL Instructor with 33 years of teaching experience.
He is the award winning author of TIPS, A Guidebook for Teaching Excellence in ESL Published by Gatekeeper Press in 2019 and recently Memory and Imagination published by Book Writing Experts in 2022.
Dan has also published articles about language and the process of teaching in journals like Trends in Humanities and Social Sciences (“Experience Magic: Read”), The Middle Eastern Journal of Research and Social Studies (“The Magic and Mysteries of Teaching ESL”), the Journal of Practical Studies in Education (“The Quest for Knowledge,” “Why Read the Masters?”), as well as book reviews in the Journal of Critical Studies in Language and Literature (“Rabindranath Tagore’s Śāntiniketan Essays,” “The Book of William. How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World,” “The Invention of Nature. The Adventures of Alexander Humboldt,” “A Place for Everything. The Curious History of Alphabetical order.”)
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