13 Words You Probably Didn’t Know Were Coined By Authors
If you’re not a fan of his books then it’s probably no surprise that Charles Dickens is credited with inventing the word boredom in his classic 1853 novel Bleak House. Dickens’s works also provide the earliest records of the words cheesiness, fluffiness, flummox, rampage, wagonful and snobbish — although snobbishness was invented by William Thackeray.
A combination of “chuckle” and “snort,” chortle was coined by Lewis Carroll in his 1871 novel Through The Looking-Glass. Carroll, like Shakespeare, is celebrated for his linguistic inventiveness and coined a vast number of similar expressions (which he termed “portmanteaux”) that blend together two pre-existing words, including frumious (“fuming” and “furious”), mimsy (“miserable” and “flimsy”), frabjous (“fabulous” and “joyous”), and slithy (“slimy” and “lithe”).
A name for the imagined location in which a dream takes place, the word dreamscape was coined by Sylvia Plath in her 1958 poem, “The Ghost’s Leavetaking.” One of the 20th century’s most important female writers, Plath also invented the words sleep-talk, windripped, sweat-wet and grrring, which she used in her short story The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit to describe the sound of alley-cats.
The earliest record of the word freelance in English comes from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe. Whereas today it describes a journalist or similar worker employed on a project-by-project basis, it originally described a mercenary knight or soldier with no allegiance to a specific country, who instead offered his services in exchange for money.
The name of both a type of loose-fitting breeches (knickerbockers) and an ice cream (a knickerbocker glory), on its first appearance in English the word knickerbocker was a nickname for someone descended from the original Dutch settlers of New York. In this context, it is derived from a pseudonym of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, who published his first major work, a satirical History of New York, under the alias Diedrich Knickerbocker in 1809.
Although there is some debate as to where the word nerd comes from — one theory claims it comes from Mortimer Snerd, a dummy used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in the 1940s and 50s, while another claims it is a reversal of the word “drunk” — more often than not it is credited to Dr. Seuss, whose 1950 poem If I Ran The Zoo provides the word’s first written record.
Nowadays we use pandemonium to mean simply “chaos” or “noisy confusion,” but given that its literal translation is “place of all demons” this is a pretty watered-down version — in fact it was coined in 1667 by the English poet John Milton, who used it as the name of the capital of Hell in his epic Paradise Lost.
The earliest written record of the word pie-hole, a slang name for the mouth, comes from Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine. Admittedly however, this is something of a grey area as it’s questionable whether King actually coined the word himself.
The word robot was first used in the play R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) written by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in 1920, and first translated into English in 1923. Čapek in turn credited the word to his brother, Josef, who presumably based it on the Czech word robotnik, meaning “slave” or “worker.” Unlike today, in the play Čapek’s robots were not automated machines but rather artificial “people” made of skin and bone but mass-produced in factories, who eventually revolt against mankind to take over the world.
Tintinnabulation, another name for “a ringing of bells,” is credited to Edgar Allan Poe, who, appropriately enough, used it in a 1831 poem called “The Bells.” Other words Poe’s works provide the first record of include sentience (in The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839), multicolor (in the short tale The Landscape Garden, 1842) and normality (in Eureka, 1848).
The works of Geoffrey Chaucer provide the Oxford English Dictionary with more first attestations of English words than any other writer. Like Shakespeare, it is difficult (if not impossible) to ascertain which of these 2,000+ words Chaucer actually invented and which were already in use before he wrote them down, but twitter, supposedly onomatopoeic of the sound of birds, is almost certainly his.
If one 20th century writer above all others rivaled Shakespeare’s linguistic creativity, it was Thomas Hardy. Unslumbering, meaning “in a state of restlessness,” is probably one of the most straightforward and most useful of his inventions, with more outlandish Hardyisms including outskeleton, blast-beruffled, discompose and even unbe (the opposite of “be”). In fact, Hardy himself once commented, “I have looked up a word in the dictionary for fear of being again accused of coining, and have found it there right enough — only to read on and find that the sole authority is myself.”
It might be one of the world’s biggest corporations today, but the word yahoo has its more humble origins in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure story in which the “Yahoos” are a race of dangerously brutish men. Within just a few years of its publication, the name yahoo had been adopted into English as another word for any equally loutish, violent or unsophisticated person.
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