15 words invented by authors
Inventors’ Day is typically celebrated in honour of all the great minds past and present that have come up with a process or thing that helped make our everyday lives easier. But what about those inventors of words that have enriched our lexicon with their language? Let’s take a look at fifteen authors, and the words they coined:
Superman is a translation of the German Übermensch commonly associated with Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Also sprach Zarathustra (1883) used Übermensch to denote the concept of ‘an ideal superior man of the future who transcends conventional Christian morality to create and impose his own values’.
Shaw used the translation in the title of the four-act drama Man and Superman in 1903. Other English renditions of Nietzsche’s Übermensch include overman and beyond-man. The more common current usage of the word meaning ‘an almost invincible superhero having the power to fly; a person likened to this superhero’ arose a few decades later when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster used it as the name of a superhero character they developed in the 1930s.
Blatant was apparently invented by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene (1596), where he tells of a ‘blatant beast’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Spenser used it as ‘an epithet of the thousand-tongued monster begotten of Cerberus and Chimæra’ to symbolize calumny.
It has been suggested that the word may be an alteration of the Scots blatand ‘bleating’, but the OED notes that this sense seems rather remote from the one Spenser used. Another comparison has been drawn to Latin blatīre, which means ‘to babble’. The sense ‘unashamedly conspicuous’ arose in the late 19th century.
A witticism is a witty remark. English poet John Dryden is credited with coining the term. He first used it in The State of Innocence, a musical stage adaptation of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. There Dryden writes: “A mighty Wittycism, (if you will pardon a new word!) but there is some difference between a Laugher and a Critique.” The word is formed from the adjective witty on the pattern of criticism.
The noun robot meaning ‘a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically’ came into English via Czech in the early 1920s. It was coined by Czech author Karel Čapek and made its first appearance in a 1920 science fiction play called R.U.R., which is short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word is from Czech robota meaning ‘forced labour, drudgery’. According to Čapek, it was actually his brother who first suggested the word to him, and that he had intended to coin a word in this sense on the basis of Latin labor ‘labour’.
According to the OED, cyberspace is ‘the space of virtual reality; the notional environment within which electronic communication occurs’. The compound noun was apparently invented by William Gibson for a 1981 science fiction short story named Burning Chrome, which was published in Omni magazine in 1982. By that time, the combining form cyber- had already been around for two decades, and was used to create largely one-off formations relating to the culture of computers or to denote futuristic concepts.
The word serendipity is often cited as a favourite by English speakers. It was coined by Horace Walpole in a letter he wrote to Horace Mann in 1754. In it he explains how he formed the noun after the title of the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. The word was rare in Walpole’s time but gained wide currency in the 20th century.
Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is filled with inventive language, but one term stands out in particular: Alex, the protagonist of the 1962 novel, uses the word droog to refer to his three friends. Meaning ‘a young man belonging to a street gang’, the noun is an alteration of the Russian drug ‘friend’.
Intensify means ‘to render intense, to give intensity to’. The verb sprang from the mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In a note to his Biographia Literaria, where the word first appears in 1817, the poet defends his invention, stating that the phrase to render intense “would often break up the sentence and destroy that harmony of the position of the words with the logical position of the thoughts”.
John Milton apparently invented the adjective sensuous, meaning ‘of or pertaining to the senses; derived from, perceived by, or affecting the senses’, in order to avoid certain associations of the existing word sensual. He first used it in 1641. The word appeared in Johnson’s dictionary, and was later ‘re-introduced’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
JRR Tolkien is said to have come up with this term to describe ‘a sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending’. In a 1944 letter, he explains his coinage: “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The eu in eucatastrophe is derived from Greek εὐ- meaning ‘good, well’.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created a language he called Newspeak. One of the words that this fictional language spawned – and one that has entered wider usage – is doublethink. It refers to the acceptance of contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time. In Orwell’s novel, doublethink is the result of political indoctrination by the totalitarian Party, which contributed to the current meaning.
A blurb is a short description of a book, film, or other product written for promotional purposes. The word was coined in 1907 by American humourist Gelett Burgess. It was apparently first found on a comic book jacket embellished with a drawing of a young lady whom Burgess dubbed ‘Miss Belinda Blurb’.
The OED currently cites the 1914 edition of Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed as the first evidence of the word’s usage. In it Burgess defines blurb as: “1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.”
Children’s literature is one area where neologisms are often found and chortle is a particularly good example. Both a noun and a verb, it was introduced by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass (1871): “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.” The word is probably a blend of chuckle and snort and means ‘to laugh in a noisy, gleeful way’ or ‘a noisy, gleeful laugh’.
14. Cloud cuckoo land
Similar to superman, cloud cuckoo land is also a translation, this time from Greek. In his comedy Birds, the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes names the city built by the birds to separate the gods from mankind Νεϕελοκοκκυγία, from Greek νεϕέλη ‘cloud’ and κόκκυξ ‘cuckoo’. In 1824, Henry Francis Cary translated this into English as ‘cloud cuckoo land’. Its current sense ‘a state of absurdly over-optimistic fantasy’ developed in the late 19th century.
Irish writer James Joyce was another eager inventor of words, although not too many of his coinages made their way into general usage. The OED includes tattarrattat in the sense ‘a series of short, sharp, rapping or tapping sounds’, and illustrates it with a quotation from Joyce’s Ulysses: “I knew his tattarrattat at the door.” It’s also notable for being the longest palindromic headword in the OED.