English has hundreds of thousands of words, depending on how you count them. And every one was once a neologism—a brand-new word. Somebody or other was the first to use it, perhaps by adapting it from another word, borrowing it from another language, or making it up out of the clear blue.
A neologism (from the Greek roots for “new” and “word”) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “newly coined” word or phrase, or one that’s “new to the language.” And a neologist is “a person who coins or uses new words or phrases.”
To that we should add “ … and who writes them down.” Because in lexicography, written evidence is what counts. Anybody who wants to get the credit for a neologism has to be the first to record it in writing.
In the neologism sweepstakes, British authors have beaten their American counterparts hands-down. But they’ve had quite a head start. They’ve been creating words since the earliest days of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Through no fault of our own, we Americans arrived late to the game.
Never mind. American writers, poets, and statesmen have been enthusiastically neologizing to make up for lost time. In fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who coined the verb “neologize.” And Mark Twain created the perfect word to celebrate the first couple of hundred years of American word-making—“bicentennial.”
American neologisms are in use wherever English is spoken. Mary McCarthy’s “ivory tower” perfectly captures the image of an academic fortress. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “idyllic” is irreplaceable. On a more down-to-earth level, John Greenleaf Whittier contributed “woodsy.” Now what on earth would we do without “woodsy”? We’d have to make do with “sylvan” or “bosky” or “forested.”
Earthier still is the anatomical Yiddish import “putz,” first used in English by Henry Miller. And then there’s “shag,” the verb meaning “to copulate.” The British use the word more than we do, but guess who first used it in print? Would you believe that champion neologizer Thomas Jefferson? Don’t take my word for it—look it up.
I have to confess that I have a particular fondness for B-list neologisms, new words that either didn’t make it into standard dictionaries or slipped in through the back door as slang or colloquialisms.
Henry James, for instance, gave us a short-lived neologism that many a woman might like to see revived: “fascinatress.” How can you not like “fascinatress”? The ever-inventive Twain gave us words that are still familiar (like “lunkhead” and “plunkety-plunk”), but some of his sillier coinages have vanished, sadly. Let’s bring back “elocute” (to talk), “corpsy” (cadaverous), and “brontosaurian” (antiquated or clumsy).
For oddball neologisms, it’s tough to beat James Russell Lowell, the unsung inventor of “locomutation” (change of place), “gyniolatry” (excessive devotion to women), “pluviosity” (rainfall), “vapulatory” (of or related to flogging), and “worsification” (bad verse). Surely there’s room for “worsification” in English! (Merriam-Webster’s, please take note.)
If you’re a lover of words, oddball or otherwise, here’s a challenge:
The Library of America Neologisms Contest — UPDATED
How good is your neologism radar? Let’s put it to the test. Match the coinage in column one with the coiner in column two. You can view the answers by clicking on the link below the chart.
Click here to see who won the contest's Grand Prize—the twelve-volume Founding Fathers Library (a $440.00 value, plus the free book American Revolution).
Absolutely no purchase is necessary or requested. Only one entry per person, please. The determination of the winner will be made at the sole discretion of The Library of America, and the winner will be notified by e-mail. Only U.S. residents may participate, and we will ship the prize to any address in the U.S. The winner’s name and location (city, state) will be posted on this blog.
|1. “commote” (to cause a commotion)||A. Benjamin Franklin|
|2. “x” (to delete or cross out)||B. John Steinbeck|
|3. “cocoon” (to swathe)||C. Ralph Waldo Emerson|
|4. “belittle”||D. James Russell Lowell|
|5. “godforsaken”||E. Henry David Thoreau|
|6. “depersonalize” (to deprive of personality)||F. Nathaniel Hawthorne|
|7. “whoop-de-do” (a bustle or fuss)||G. Herman Melville|
|8. “A No. l” (first-class)||H. William Faulkner|
|9. “blat” (to blurt out)||I. Wallace Stevens|
|10. “snivelization” (civilization as a cause of anxiety)||J. William Penn|
|11. “blabbermouth”||K. Thomas Jefferson|
|12. “harmonica”||L. William Dean Howells|
|13. “honk” (both noun and verb)||M. Zora Neale Hurston|
|14. “hot cakes” (pancakes or griddle cakes)||N. Mark Twain|
|15. “squat” (nothing)||O. James Fenimore Cooper|
View the answers!