The inventive words and worlds of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft
To celebrate this week’s birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, one of Gothic horror’s most acclaimed authors, here is a brief look into the contributions H.P. Lovecraft and fellow Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe have made to the English language.
Though Edgar Allan Poe, the progenitor of the modern day horror genre (across all mediums), is well known for his fiction, lesser known are his contributions to the English language. Poe had a great passion for language and for both revitalizing uncommon words and creating new ones. In the time since his passing, a great many words that Poe has used have entered the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). While many of these words remain esoteric, one or two are so integrated into the English lexicon that it’s hard to believe they originated so recently. Here is a sample:
|Agent||In France or French-speaking contexts: an agent of the law; a policeman.|
|Electric bell||A bell operated by electricity|
|Key card||A card used for constructing or revealing secret messages contained in a larger body of text|
|Markedness||The condition, quality, or state of being marked, distinctiveness|
|Melodramaticism||A tendency to melodramatic expression|
|Mispunctuate||To punctuate (a sentence, etc.) incorrectly|
|Multicolor||The condition of having or displaying many colors.|
|Normality||The character or state of being normal|
|Overscore||To draw a line through or over|
|Paragraphism||The occupation or practice of writing or printing newspaper paragraphs|
|Pesty||Noxious, harmful; troublesome, annoying|
|Phaseless||Having no phases; unchanging|
|Quotability||The quality of being quotable; suitability for quoting|
|Raylessness||The state of being devoid of any ray of light|
|Rigmarolic||Of the nature of or characterized by rigmarole.|
|Thinking material||Material encouraging thought|
For a more comprehensive look at many of the words said to be coined and/or popularized by Poe, check out this article from the Edgar Allan Poe society. A further indication of Poe’s significance, both linguistic and literary, is the fact that there are a number of entries in the OED that are derived from Poe’s own name, most of which are used to describe fiction writing similar to his. Poeish, Poe-like, Poe-esque, and Poeist (a fan of Poe’s work) are all included in the OED, with the first instances of several of these terms occurring only a few decades after his death in 1849.
Poe may be horror genre’s grandfather, but he is not the only renowned author in the world of horror with a passion for language. The first in a literary movement that some literary critics have dubbed “weird fiction”, H.P. Lovecraft’s work, though relatively unknown during his lifetime, has become increasingly popular with the generations that would follow him. Many of the invented words of his fictional worlds are now commonly known by fans, literary critics, and others. Within his “Cthulu mythos”, the fictional universe in which many of his works (and the works of writers who have written in it since) are set, Lovecraft crafted horrifying Eldritch creatures known as “the Great Old Ones”, the “Outer gods,” and (later) the “Elder gods”.
While names like Cthulu (usually pronounced “KAH-THOO-LOO”), Azathoth, and Nyerlathotep aren’t exactly well-known in the wider culture, Lovecraft’s unique nomenclature has inspired many generations of horror writers. The Old Ones of Lovecraft’s mythos reside in the lost city of R’lyeh, and speak a language entirely invented by Lovecraft, known to some fans as “R’lyehian”. Like Lovecraft’s stories and fictional deities, R’lyehian nearly incomprehensible. The language has almost no grammatical system, with no distinction between parts of speech. R’lyehian has only present and “non-present” tenses, as Lovecraft’s Old Ones perceive time differently than humans. “R’lyehian” was never comprehensively explained by the author, and much of what is thought of as this language has been gleaned, as is appropriate for anything Lovecraft, from the guesswork of fans whose task has likely driven them up a wall with frustration. The best known example of “R’lyehian” comes from Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulu”: ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, which, according to Lovecraft, translates to “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulu lies dreaming”. Those looking for a comprehensive ‘conlang ’ (constructed language) like Star Trek’s Klingon or one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages may be disappointed, but the mystery of Lovecraft’s invented language nonetheless has its own special appeal. For more information on H.P. Lovecraft and his writing, read our earlier OxfordWords blog post on the topic.
Poe and Lovecraft may have greater ties to language than many other horror writers, but they are hardly the only authors in the genre who have made significant contributions to the English lexicon. Mary Shelley, one of horror’s (and science fiction’s) earliest writers, has the distinction of having her most well-known creation, Frankenstein, enter the popular vernacular and the OED as an allusive term. Of course, anyone who has read the novel will know that this definition is a misattributed allusion (as is noted in the OED), as the term is often used as a metaphor or allusion to Frankenstein’s Monster, while Frankenstein is actually the name of the Monster’s creator. Similarly, the titular vampire of Bram Stoker’s Dracula has an entry as well, meaning ‘the name of the King of the Vampires’ and also used allusively to mean a terrifying person; the term vampire had originated over a century prior to Stoker’s novel. Both Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are also used often as metaphorical terms, to refer to opposite or dual sides of a person’s character.
Horror, like science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and many other genres of literature, can sometimes be maligned by the public, whether due to its often supernatural elements or simply the fact that it is oftentimes outside mainstream literary circles. However, writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, and many more have contributed not only to the realm of literature but also, in their own ways, to the language we speak and the world we live in.