Words and the people who make them | COMMENTARY

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John Milton gave us pandemonium, Lewis Carroll invented chortle, and astrophysicist Fred Hoyle came to regret coming up with big bang.

But most people who attempt to coin words see failure, because their creations are obscure, too clever by half, or unable to meet a common need. H.L. Mencken’s ecdysiast, coined from the Greek word for molting, has never been much competition to stripper.*


In fact, many successful coinages, the ones that survive to remain in use, are casual, “as much by happenstance as by intention,” Ralph Keyes writes in The Hidden History of Coined Words (Oxford University Press, 375 pages, $29.95).

Mr. Keyes’s exploration of the origins of coinages reveals how utterly democratic the English language is. It has no gatekeeper, no central authority, no hierarchy. Shakespeare and Milton sit cheek by jowl with George Ade, the largely forgotten Midwestern humorist and author of the early twentieth century, to whose “Fables in Slang” column we owe bellhop, keen, piffle, and tightwad. Nobel Prize-winning scientists share a pew with the writers of cartoons and comic books and Dr. Seuss. And all are in the shadow of the great coiner known as Anonymous.


Moreover, once coinages enter the mainstream—and not many do—they can travel in directions the coiner did not intend: “Like unruly offspring, neologisms can go their own way, and in the process develop meanings their parents never intended. Linguists take this process for granted. They assume that the meaning of new words will grow, diversify, and take off in directions never intended by their creator. The more users a coinage attracts, the greater the number of meanings it will acquire along the way.”

For example, suffragette was originally intended as a slur. Charles Hands, writing in the Daily Mail, said that the women seeking the vote were not suffragists but merely suffragettes. Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters in the movement took up the term because “there was a spirit in it” and made it their own.

Mr. Keyes has made a strenuous effort to trace the coinages he lists to the actual creators, as far as can be determined. His book—an entirely readable one, mind you—has a formidable apparatus: nearly ninety pages of bibliography and notes. But in many cases, even when the first printed appearance of a word can be ferreted out, the likelihood remains that it was already current in speech when the writer plucked it from the flowing stream.

He also offers a little advice at the end for those of you who may seek to coin words. He thinks you should stay clear of Greek and Latin, now that fewer people study those languages. He thinks attempts to sound clever will look strained. He emphasizes that for a coinage to survive, it must meet some need in the language. The people who pick it up must find it useful.

So from affluenza to zipper, follow him as he surveys the terrain.

* Mencken had more success with Bible belt, a term he came up with during the prosecution of John Scopes in Tennessee in 1924, a proceeding for which he also gave us the enduring term the monkey trial.

I myself am the creator of peeververein (peever, “peevish complainer” + verein, Ger., “club,” “association”) to identify pedants who carry on about violations of their favorite bogus rules of grammar and usage. Let’s just say that the attention it has received is modest.