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birth of words

Tracing the birth of words: from ‘open’ to ‘heffalump’

Open for longer

It is always immensely satisfying to be able to pinpoint the genuine birthday of a word in English, although there will always be some words for which this will be impossible. It can be difficult to trace exactly when a word first made its appearance on paper (and when it was used in speech is even harder to ascertain) and so it is rare to be able to give a definitive date for a word’s first appearance. The Oxford English Dictionary strives to track down the first appearance of a given work in English, but as new resources and scholarly research come to light, etymological entries and even definitions can require updating. One particularly spectacular example which illustrates this is the OED entry for the word open. In the second edition, published in 1989, the sense of open meaning ‘of a shop, public house, etc., accessible to customers’ had a first recorded date of 1824. By the time this entry was revised and published in OED Online in June 2004, much earlier evidence had been found, taking the sense back as far as the 11th century, referring to a bath-house. That is an antedating of some 700 years. The birthday cake for this sense suddenly needed more candles.

Words for a particular purpose

There are certain areas of the language that afford a greater degree of clarity in ascertaining when a word has first been used. Scientific and technical words are often coined for a specific purpose. Writers, especially poets, are also in the habit of creating a word when they feel that there is a need for a term that seems to be lacking in English. James Murray, the famous and famously irascible editor of the OED, took a rather dim view of the ludic habit of these lyrics, and was quoted stating “One must not take the language of poets too seriously”.

I write therefore I neologize

Among writers, Shakespeare is held to be one of the greatest sources of created words. For some while it was estimated that he invented approximately one-tenth of the words he used (and the size of his vocabulary was estimated to be close to 30,000) and so it was thought that he added well over two thousand words to the English language. However, as the revision of the OED has progressed, it has become apparent that Shakespeare’s contribution to English word creation is somewhat less than that number (although still far more than anyone else).

Some writers, such as James Joyce, supplied their work with playful inventions, which are often recorded as nonce words. It is a point worth considering whether such words would merit inclusion in a dictionary if anyone of lesser literary stature had used them.

The following words are all examples of very successful coinages – they’ve become well-established in English, and all have a first quotation in the OED by a particular writer. See if you can match the word to the person who created it.

Blurb Anthony Burgess
Boojum A.A. Milne
Doublethink John Dryden
Droog Lewis Carroll
Ecdysiast Horace Walpole
Eucatastrophe John Milton
Heffalump H.L. Mencken
Intensify George Orwell
Serendipity J.R.R. Tolkien
Witticism Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sensuous Gelett Burgess

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