10 Commonly Used Words That Were Created By Authors
How many of these words do you use every day?
Who knew ten years ago that “selfie” would become a staple in our daily speech? The beautiful thing about English is that it’s ever-evolving. This past decade alone, we’ve added countless words to the dictionary, from “Google” to “mansplain” — and who knows what terminology will enter our collective consciousness in the 2020s?
Of course, over the course of history, poets and authors were the ones who came up with new English words to express novel concepts in their works. They played with language by:
1) Borrowing from other dialects
2) Switching around nouns and verbs
3) Pushing two (or more) words together
4) Adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words
Any good etymologist will know that we owe a good portion of the English we speak today to such writers. But for those of us who aren’t etymologists, well, shouldn't we still celebrate these authors for their brilliance?
To that end, here's the lowdown on 10 amazing modern words invented by authors, along with some background on how they came to be.
A publishing word that we take for granted today has an origin story you might not expect. In 1906, American humorist Gelett Burgess published a book that was titled Are You a Bromide? A 1907 bookplate designed for it featured a young woman named Belina Blurb “in the act of blurbing”: that is, hollering praises in promotion of the work. (Think “extra, extra, read all about it!”) In case the meaning was still lost on viewers, the headline itself on the bookplate also shouted, “YES, this is a BLURB!”
Publishers immediately took to the term, and by 1914, blurb was standard publishing vocabulary — which clearly tickled Burgess. He later wrote a book, Burgess Unabridged: A Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, which further elucidated the purpose of the blurb:
“On the ‘jacket’ of the ‘latest’ fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the ‘sensation of the year’; the blurb tells of ‘thrills’ and ‘heart-throbs,’ of ‘vital importance’ and ‘soul-satisfying revelation.’ The blurb speaks of the novel’s ‘grip and ‘excitement.’” Need he say more?
Original context: “YES, this is a BLURB!”
Other words created by Burgess: tintiddle (which means “a witty retort thought of too late” — something to which we can all relate, I’m sure).
Though the Internet didn’t exist in the Medieval Ages, mercenary soldiers did. These soldiers would fight for whomever submitted the highest bid for his services; thus originated the phrase free lance. And while it’s possible that it existed previously, one of the first instances in print was as part of Sir Walter Scott’s famous epic, Ivanhoe.
Like the concept of freelancers themselves, the word has gone through several iterations: from free lance, it became free-lance, before society finally settled on the word that we know today — freelance — around the 1970s.
As scholar J. Blackstock points out, freelance itself is quite apropos: free comes from a Germanic root word that means “to love” and lance is related to the old French word for “launch.” What better combination of words to describe freelancers, who throw themselves into doing what they cherish, on their own time?
Original context: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them — I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”
Other words created by Scott: None that we know of, alas.
Interestingly, “optimism” was in use by 1740, but pessimism didn’t exist until poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it for the first time in 1795. He borrowed from the French word, pessimisme, which stems from a Latin word meaning “the worst.”
Coleridge was a brilliant wordsmith in general. He loved wordplay, and would go on to add “aureity,” “bisexual,” “actualize,” and “dynamic” to the English language. But being a linguistic purist, he was rueful about these transgressions and once apologized for inventing intensify, writing:
“I have therefore hazarded the word, ‘intensify’: though, I confess, it sounds uncouth to my own ear.” Of course, if he could see how significantly he impacted the English language, he might’ve been a little less pessimistic. (See what I did there?)
Original context: “Why, ’tis almost as bad as Lovell’s ‘Farmhouse,’ and that would be at least a thousand fathoms deep in the dead sea of pessimism.”
Other words created by Coleridge: soulmate, actualize, intensify, dynamic, bisexual, factual, relativity.
Serendipity means the “faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Appropriately, that is exactly how it was invented.
Author Horace Walpole came up with the word in a letter to a friend on January 28, 1754. He got the idea from a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Serendip is the ancient name for Sri Lanka, and Walpole explained in the letter that the princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of” — hence, “serendipity.”
“Serendipity” remained obscure for a long time, and it wasn’t widely used until the 20th century. However, it managed to become the UK’s favorite word in the year 2000, beating out such contenders as “love,” “onomatopoeia,” and “Quidditch.” Since the movie starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale hadn’t been released yet, how it rose to that spot is unknown… though you might say that it was a happy accident.
Original context: “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you. I once read a silly fairy tale called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of. Now do you understand Serendipity?”
Other words created by Walpole: malaria, nuance, souvenir.
In the 16th century, French humorist François Rabelais wrote a satirical series about the adventures of two giants: Pantagruel and his father, Gargantua. Spoiler alert — both giants were extremely large.
But that begs the question: how big exactly does something need to be in order to be called gargantuan? Well, pretty damn big. In one of Rabelais’ earlier books, titled The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua (a gargantuan title indeed), the narrator lives inside Pantagruel’s mouth for half a year, and reports that there is an entire nation living on a tooth. Sort of like the 16th century version of Horton Hears a Who.
Original context: various uses in The Great Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua and its sequel, The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel.
Other words created by Rabelais: None that stuck around in the English language. Pantagruelism means a “certain gaiety of mind pickled in the scorn of fortuitous things,” but unfortunately that never caught on.
Anyone who calls themselves a grammar nerd can thank Dr. Seuss for creating the word! (And wasn’t that a Seussian rhyme?) In 1950, Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, wrote a children’s book entitled If I Ran a Zoo. In it, the narrator promises that he’ll find a “Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too” for his zoo.
Nerkles and Seersuckers were lost in the Vault Of Forgotten Words, but somehow Nerds hung around. Dr. Seuss’ illustration for a Nerd was of a strange, little, and not particularly stylish creature, which is likely what led to its use among the general public.
“Nerd” soon became everyday slang, as Newsweek noted in a 1951 article: “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” In the 1970s, the word became even more widespread — and the rest is history.
Original context: “And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo / And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo / a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!”
Other words created by Dr. Seuss: schlopp, wocket, grinch.
This ever-delightful word, chortle, was created by none other than the ever-delightful Lewis Carroll. It made its debut in Through the Looking-Glass in 1871 and is a perfect portmanteau of “chuckle” and “snort.” Though it’s one of those words that instantly imparts its meaning, Webster’s Dictionary today defines it as a “to laugh in a noisy, gleeful way.”
Like many authors, Carroll was extremely fond of blending words. In the preface to The Hunting of the Snark, he explained his thought process:
“For instance, take the two words ‘fuming’ and ‘furious.’ Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards ‘fuming,’ you will say fuming-furious; if they turn, by even a hair’s breadth, towards ‘furious,’ you will say furious-fuming; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say frumious.” Not a bad writing tip for those of us hoping to manifest similar creations.
Original context: “He chortled in his joy.”
Other words created by Carroll: snark, galumph, jabberwocky.
Yet another portmanteau, witticism was created by 17th century English poet John Dryden in “The Author’s Apology for Heroique Poetry.” It combines — you guessed it — “wit” and “criticism” to create “witticism”: a witty or ironic remark.
Incidentally, Dryden bestowed another legacy upon the English language; he is believed to have been the first person to state the infamous “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule. If you would like to rail against him, you can visit his grave at Westminster Abbey in London — and don’t forget to bring all of your witticisms with you (as long as you don’t bring them with).
Original context: “I have heard (sayes one of them) of Anchove's dissolv'd in Sauce; but never of an Angel in Hallelujahs. A mighty Witty cism, (if you will pardon a new word!) but there is some difference between a Laugher and a Critique.”
Other words created by Dryden: None else.
Besides being one of the longest poems in the English language and a personal favorite of Queen Elizabeth I’s, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is notable for bringing the word blatant into existence. Spenser devised the word to describe a many-tongued creature that he called the Blatant Beast.
Consequently, “blatant” began to indicate someone who was very noisy — as a beast with that many tongues probably would be! Over time, this broadened into the more general definition that we know today, of something obvious and unadulterated.
Fun fact: the Blatant Beast has one hundred tongues when it first appears in the second book of The Faerie Queene. When it reappears in the sixth book, however, it possesses another NINE HUNDRED tongues! Which, for those of us who prefer English to math, makes a full thousand. Needless to say, if you ever saw such a thousand-tongued beast anywhere, you’d probably consider it blatant indeed.
Original context: “Who now does follow the foule Blatant Beast / Whilest Calidore does follow that faire Mayd / Unmyndfull of his vow and high beheast / Which by the Faery Queene was on him layd...”
Other words created by Spenser: braggadocchio, derring-do.
William Shakespeare is credited for contributing over a thousand words to the OED. This number may be a tad over-exaggerated, as people tend to conflate the first recorded usage of a word with the actual invention of the word. However, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare was singularly instrumental in creating many of the words that we still use today.
Elbow was one such word. “Elbow” as a noun technically existed already, but Shakespeare was the first to use it as a verb in King Lear. Not content with this interplay with verbs and nouns, he was also a wizard at tacking on prefixes and suffixes to create entire new words — as seen by his other inventions, “undress” and “invulnerable.” Surely an interesting challenge would be to read through your favorite Shakespeare and try to identify which words were established at the time, and which he made up!
Original context: “A sovereign shame so elbows him. His own unkindness that stripped her from his benediction turned her to foreign casualties.”
Other words created by Shakespeare: fashionmonger, foppish, howl, informal, obscene.