Talkie Tuesday: Nine English words people just made up

Languages evolve the same way as anything else: Growth and change. What becomes useful survives and what doesn’t dies. English is no different, although it’s a language that loves to grow via consumption — taking in bits of other languages or finding new uses for old words.

Sometimes the words are just made up by writers in their works — and sometimes, those words go on to become a part of the language.

The words below are listed in alphabetical order, but don’t go looking for Shakespeare’s name. While he’s often credit with creating hundreds of new English words, he really didn’t. Rather, he was really good at collecting them from what he heard, then using them in his plays to make the dialogue sound realistic — it was how the people were talking in the streets.

The problem happened when the first Oxford English Dictionary was created, and the entries had to include an attestation to first printed use. Well, at that time, guess who that often was? And so Shakespeare wound up being credited as the source of words that he, at best, curated.

That doesn’t diminish his genius one it, though. Now here are the words.

Blatant

Source: Edward Spenser’s poem, The Faerie Queene

This word first appears in the form of the Blatant Beast, who works for Envie and Detraction, two allegorical figures. Of them, the poem says:

Vnto themselues they gotten had

A monster, which the Blatant beast men call,

A dreadfull feend of gods and men ydrad.

While the original Blatant Beast represented the worst sort of slander that could be spread about a person, the word eventually lost its beastly origins and came to mean offensive or in your face — “a blatant disregard for the truth.”

Chortle
Source: Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…

These lines open Carroll’s brilliant gibberish poem that is, nevertheless, somewhat understandable because the grammar and parts of speech follow English rules and rhythm perfectly even if the words don’t quite. In that opening line, it’s quite obvious that “brillig” refers to something about the place we’re at, and slithy toves are creatures (nouns) that do actions (verbs) in a particular place — the wabe.

While Carroll’s Alice books were more likely than not a satire of “modern” math written by a rather conservative mathematician, they nonetheless also reflected his fascination and extreme talent with words. Jabberwocky also uses familiar structure — traditional math — with nonsense expressions standing in for all the standard variables as a reflection of Carroll’s disdain for what was happening to math at the time.

As for “chortle,” it appears in this sentence, after the hero has slain the Jabberwock: “’O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ he chortled in his joy.” Here, the word can be taken as a portmanteau of chuckle and snorted.

Cyberspace

Source: William Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome

This one took off and took on meaning fast, becoming deeply entrenched in our culture particularly after the rise of the internet. The short story was first published in the magazine OMNI in 1982.

The first instance in the book is here: “I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the “Cyberspace Seven…”

The term didn’t really take off two years later, when he used it in his novel, Neuromancer, and it’s defined thusly: “The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games… Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”

Sounds like the internet, doesn’t it? Sort of, but in Gibson’s vision, it went a little bit farther. Think Ready Player One — VR that’s interactive to the point that your own mind is projected into it.

Neuromancer was not the first cyberpunk novel or even the first work in the genre, but Gibson was its most famous author, and he boosted the aesthetic into the zeitgeist.

Freelance

Source: Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe

You’ll probably figure out the origin of this one as soon as I explain the premise of Scott’s 1819 novel. Set in England in the Middle Ages several centuries after the time of the Norman Conquest, it tells the story of one of the last remaining Anglo-Saxon noble families in the country.

The story is contemporaneous with Robin Hood, and the hero, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, is a knight. This is one of the first modern stories to popularize the whole idea of chivalry and jousting tournaments with the English-speaking world, and now you probably have guessed how the word “freelance”  came up in the work.

Since these knights jousted and fought with lances, a “freelance” was someone who held no allegiance to a king or prince but, rather, was available for hire.

Mondegreen

Source: Sylvia Wright’s magazine article The Death of Lady Mondegreen

This one is almost charming, but the word itself has taken on an entire life online. The term refers to terribly misheard song lyrics, with one of the most cited being people hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

In Wright’s case, it was her mother who had misread a poem to her when she was a girl. The poem was Percy’s Reliques, and the correct line was, “layd him on the green,” which came out of her mother’s mouth as “Lady Mondegreen.”

Needless to day, it wasn’t until years later that Wright figured out the error and wrote her article, ushering the word into common usage and a great source of memes.

Nerd

Source: Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo

While Seuss himself didn’t define this one, it popped up in college slang with its modern meaning a year later in 1951, and while Merriam-Webster seems to think that this argues against Seuss inventing it, it actually makes perfect sense.

Families were bigger then and babysitting was an ubiquitous occupation, so it’s quite plausible that a high school senior or college freshman picked it up from reading to a younger sibling or babysitting client and the word made its way from there.

Here’s its original appearance in the book:

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!

Again, it’s not defined, although the word “seersucker” was and still is a well-known fabric with somewhat square and nerdy connotations, so that may have helped define it to those college kids who took off with it.

Pandemonium

Source: John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost

Milton was the author who went ahead and wrote the origin story for Dante’s Inferno (okay, Divine Comedy, but no one ever reads the other two parts), and here he tells the story of Satan, the war in Heaven, and all that yadda yadda.

To him, Pandemonium was the capital of Hell, and the word was derived pretty simply: from the Greek prefix pan-, meaning all, and demonium, referring to the realm of the demons. So the word simply meant “Place of all demons.”

Scaredy-cat

Source: Dorothy Parker’s short story The Waltz

It’s the “scaredy” part that she coined here, although it’s been firmly welded to the word cat, so that it never appears separately or in any other compound. You’ll never hear “scaredy-dog,” after all.

The modern definition is somebody who’s afraid of everything, but in the context of the story, it has the typical Dorothy Parker sarcastic bite to it. In the story, she’s a woman at a dance feeling sorry for another woman is currently dancing with a man she doesn’t want to.

But then Parker’s character realizes she’s probably going to be asked yes and doesn’t want to, visualizes all kinds of scenarios on how to get out of it, including referring to seeing him in hell first or having labor pains, but she concludes with, “Oh, yes, do let’s dance together — it’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri…”

Ultimately, she realizes that she has no choice but to politely comply.

Yahoo

Source: Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels

Long before it was an internet company that’s pretty much since past its prime, “yahoo” was coined by Jonathan Swift as the name of a depraved and filthy group of creatures Lemuel Gulliver encounters in his travels.

They are obsessed with digging through filth and mud to find pretty stones, making them stand-ins for the author to mock the petty materialism and elitism of 18th century Britain. There’s also one wild theory that their appearance in the book was based on contemporary reports of the Sasquatch coming from Native Americans at the time, but that could be specious.

And there you have it. Nominated for the list but cut upon investigation: The allegation that Dorothy Plath coined “dreamscape,” when it’s fairly badly attested, along with claims that Alexandre Dumas fils created “feminist.” Not only did the word exist before he used it in 1872, but he used it in a pamphlet that was extraordinarily misogynistic, so no credit to him.

What are your favorite invented words? Let us know in the comments.

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