• When in Need of the Right Word, Great Writers Simply Make Them Up

    Ralph Keyes on the Rich Literary History of the Neologism

    Literary Lingo

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    While serving in World War II, Joseph Heller concluded that war was a farce in which anyone crazy enough to shirk combat was considered sane enough to fight. That became the theme of a novel he wrote several years later. Heller titled his novel Catch-18. Just as this book was about to be published in 1961, its editor discovered that an upcoming novel by Leon Uris was called Mila-18.

    “He had stolen our number,” the editor, Robert Gottlieb, later recalled. So Gottlieb and Heller began to kick around alternative figures. Eleven was out, due to the recent movie Ocean’s 11. Fourteen wasn’t funny. Twenty-six lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. The challenge of finding a new number began to disturb Gottlieb’s sleep. One night it came to him: 22. In the morning he called Heller and said, “I’ve got it. It’s Catch-22. It’s funnier than 18.” Heller agreed. What made 22 funnier than 18? “Who knows,” Gottlieb told TV host Charles Osgood. “It just sounds funnier.”

    Would the title of Heller’s novel have become so iconic if it had been called Catch-18? Or Catch-14? Or Catch-26? Certainly, those versions sound discordant to ears accustomed to Catch-22. Although there are other ways to describe paradoxical experiences—a no-win situation; a double bind; damned if you do, damned if you don’t—“Catch-22” is the idiom we use most often. Whom should we credit with coining that concept? Heller? Gottlieb? Both? Call it a co-coinage.

    Some of our most useful terms have emerged from the pens and keyboards of authors such as Joseph Heller. Heller’s fellow World War II veteran Norman Mailer is another one. Like Heller, Mailer based a first novel on his combat experience: The Naked and the Dead (1948). Anticipating censorship, Mailer used the word fug in lieu of “fuck” several hundred times in his manuscript. This coinage attracted lots of attention, due partly to a popular anecdote in which the actress Tallulah Bankhead said when meeting Mailer, “So you’re the author who doesn’t know how to spell ‘fuck,’” (Bankhead’s biographer and Mailer himself denied that this ever happened. Mailer—who insisted that what Bankhead actually said when greeting him was “Hello”—thought the racier version, which appeared in an April 1950 column called “Edith Gwynn’s Hollywood,” originated with her press agent.) For some time after The Naked and the Dead’s publication, fug was our preferred euphemism for fuck, before giving way to “frig,” “frick,” and “freak” (friggin’, frickin’, freakin’). During the Aquarian Age, a rock group called themselves the Fugs.

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    Factoid was Norman Mailer’s other contribution to the postwar lexicon. This coinage first appeared in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, where Mailer defined it as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” Although factoid proved to be an unusually successful neologism, along the way it took on a meaning quite different than the one its coiner had intended. Rather than the subtle, supple notion Mailer had in mind, one that anticipated the era of “alternative facts,” over time factoid came to refer simply to meager pieces of information.

    The fact that authors like Norman Mailer have contributed more than their share of neologisms to the world’s word pool is due not only to their hunger for recognition but to the very nature of authorship. As creative users of language, how could they not have a yen to create new terms? Writers who can’t come up with the right word to describe something feel no compunction about simply coining a new one.



    John Milton certainly didn’t. After diligent scouring of the OED, Milton scholar Gavin Alexander of Cambridge University has concluded that the 17th-century poet added more than 600 words to the English language. Alexander’s list includes advantage, complacency, damp, dismissive, fragrance, jubilant, obtrusive, padlock, and terrific. He is just one of many scholars who admire this poet’s verbal virtuosity. Creating playlists of Miltonisms seems to be an integral part of assessing his work. A book about Milton by Logan Pearsall Smith featured the author’s own favorites: bannered, liturgical, echoing, and Satanic. In The Miracle of Language, Richard Lederer includes on his list infinitude, all-conquering, smooth shaven, and light fantastic. Authorisms author Paul Dickson, who considers John Milton his favorite author-neologizer, told an interviewer that he particularly admires such Miltonisms as impassive, earthshaking, sectarian, and dimensionless, along with phrases such as all hell broke loose and by hook or by crook.

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    Milton lived in a time when the English language was mushrooming, along with scientific and other discoveries. This invited writers to fill gaps in the lexicon with words of their own creation. They did so in diverse ways.

    When composing his poetry, writes Logan Pearsall Smith, Milton tapped multiple sources “from old archaic words to the new words he created for himself out of the rags and fragments found in their recesses.” Gavin Alexander believes that the freedom Milton felt to tinker with language lay in his commitment to political, religious, and personal liberty. One might also speculate that the poet’s blindness (Milton couldn’t see for the last two decades of his life, including the period when he dictated all ten volumes of Paradise Lost to his daughters and various secretaries) could have contributed to his verbal prowess. Perhaps the imagination called for by a writer who can’t easily look up existing words encouraged him to create new ones.

    Because the puritanical poet couldn’t find a word he considered strong enough to condemn those who engaged in licentious behavior, Milton invented two of his own: debauchery and depravity. In need of a term for what’s perceived through the senses without bringing sex to mind, Milton coined sensuous (only to have that word take on erotic overtones anyway). Love-lorn—Milton’s word for being forsaken by a lover—has also developed a different meaning. So has terrific, which Milton used in Paradise Lost to mean “terrifying,” and unoriginal which he created for that epic poem, to refer to being of unknown origin.

    According to Gavin Alexander, Milton used several strategies when coining words such as these. One strategy consisted of reformulating existing words (stunning, space). Another involved making one word out of two (self-delusion, arch-fiend). And—in a strategy Milton relied on for more than a hundred of his neologisms—converting neutral old words into negative new ones by the addition of a prefix: unprincipled, unaccountable, unintended, and irresponsible. In one case, adding a prefix to a word of his own invention allowed Milton to score a neological twofer: first coining obtrusive, then doubling up with unobtrusive.

    Writers who can’t come up with the right word to describe something feel no compunction about simply coining a new one.

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    Although many of Milton’s neologisms were created by tinkering with existing terms, his most notable contribution to the lexicon was original, if inadvertent. In Paradise Lost, Milton called Satan’s headquarters Pandemonium. This term combined the Greek pan, or “all,” with the Latin daemonium, which referred to demonic spirits. With its first letter lowercased, Milton’s name for the devil’s chaotic lair left its name behind to refer to a state of chaos in general. In other cases, terms we still use are based on names of fictional characters, and one in particular.


    Eponymish Characters

    In a book about Miguel de Cervantes’s novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans noted what he called “a single, shocking fact.” This fact was that “in all of the western canon, no other novelistic character has ever been adjectivized.” Say what? Certainly quixotic is a classic case of a fictional character whose name became the basis of an adjective. But the only one? Nearly a century before Cervantes’s 1605/1615 novel appeared in two parts, François Rabelais’s satiric epic The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1535) featured a giant and his son whose name inspired the term gargantuan. And how about Faustian? Oedipal? Gatsbyesque? To name just a few.

    Then there’s Pollyannaish, referencing the 1913 novel Pollyanna whose 11-year-old protagonist always finds “something to be glad about.” In this she resembles Candide. Voltaire’s 1759 novel by that title features a young man who pursues the philosophy of his mentor Dr. Pangloss, a character based on the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz whose credo was “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Thus Panglossian. And how about the irrepressible clerk Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield who is ever hopeful that something will “turn up.” This type of blind optimism is sometimes referred to as Micawberesque.

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    The works of Charles Dickens feature a treasure trove of characters whose names inspired enduring eponyms. Micawberesque is only one. Scroogish rivals quixotic as a widely used adjective based on an author’s name-creation, that of mean and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Pecksniffian has come to describe the type of unctuous hypocrisy displayed by Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewitt.

    But eponyms were not Dickens’s only contribution to the English lexicon. He also was an inventive and prolific creator of new words. After years of sniffing out the many neologisms in his work, Knud Sørensen published Charles Dickens: Linguistic Innovator. In this 1985 book Sørensen concluded that Dickens was “a large-scale contributor to the vocabulary of English.” His close reading of Dickens’s canon found some 1059 neologisms in the author’s fiction, essays, and letters.

    During the years since Sørensen’s book was published, diligent etymologists have repeatedly found earlier use of new words once attributed to Dickens. After scouring old publications in the British Library, Michael Quinion discovered how many terms once thought to have originated with Dickens actually predated him. Quinion’s list, posted on his World Wide Words website, includes boredom, rampage, butterfingers, confusingly, footlights, dustbin, squashed, spectacularly, and tousled (as touzled).

    Butterfingers—which Dickens included in The Pickwick Papers as butter-fingers, referring to a clumsy athlete—had been used more than two centuries earlier (in Gervase Markham’s 1615 handbook for housewives who were warned that they “must not be butter-fingered”). Because in Sketches by Boz Dickens wrote “put the kye-bosk on her,” the author was long thought to have been the source of kibosh. Much controversy surrounds this attribution, however, with many other contenders being noted, dating back to at least 1830. In etymologist Anatoly Liberman’s droll conclusion, “The number of fanciful etymologies of kibosh is rather great.”

    Although modern search techniques have substantially reduced the size of Dickens’s confirmed neologisms, quite a few examples of original word use can nonetheless be found in his writing. According to the OED, of 9229 quotations from Dickens’s work that appear on their pages, 213 provide evidence of a new word. In his 2011 biography Becoming Dickens, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst concluded that without Charles Dickens’s many contributions, “the English language would quietly contract, losing more than two hundred words and phrases Dickens brought into print for the first time.” The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens concurs. “It is rarely easy to tell if a particular neologism registers an authentic Dickensian coinage or just Dickens’s ever-alert ear,” they concede, “but in any case—and as in the case of Shakespeare—he exhibits a marvelous facility for being the first to publicize an abundance of striking words and phrases.”

    The works of Charles Dickens feature a treasure trove of characters whose names inspired enduring eponyms.

    Some Dickensisms that Michael Quinion couldn’t find in earlier use include sawbones, whiz-bang, messiness, and seediness. Dickens was the first to use common synonymously with vulgar, and dim for someone who wasn’t too bright. From the theatrical world he borrowed gag, patter, and mug as a verb. Another verb that came from that world was make-up, which became today’s noun makeup (after Max Factor, in 1920, began to refer to his line of cosmetics as “make-up”).

    In Great Expectations Dickens introduced doormat for someone on whom others figuratively wipe their boots. (“She asked me and Joe whether we supposed she was doormats under our feet.”) David Copperfield included a passage in which Dickens talked of a woman experiencing the creeps (“a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps’”). Impossibly, depreciation, aquatic, and preventible (so spelled) also showed up in that novel.

    Dickens’s childhood love of wordplay survived into adulthood, as when he referred to killing off Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop as Nellicide. Spoffish was a term Dickens used in Sketches by Boz for a fussy, officious person (“A little spoffish man entered the room”). Red tapeworm was his name for an official who adheres slavishly to rules and regulations. In The Pickwick Papers the author called a tired person confoozled. Someone who over-exclaimed was ponging, a piece of slang he borrowed from the theater. Stage prompters to him were prompterians. While boating on a lake he might become sea-sicky. Touch-me-not-ishness was another Dickensism-among-friends. So was ravenless, which was Dickens’s word for his status after a pet raven died (one he later used in a preface to Barnaby Rudge). The author once asked a correspondent who had a black eye, “Did you take it naturally or bacchanalially?” In another letter he wondered if a friend would be drinking port “metropolitaneously,” a Dickensism that the OED defines as “in metropolitan fashion.”

    Dickens was fond of converting nouns into adjectives this way, as when he grafted the suffix –less onto “care” for careless, and created penniless from that suffix and penny. Less useful were nephewless, conversationless, fireworkless, pastureless, and theatreless. Other Dickensisms reflected his penchant for creating new words from old ones by appending a y. These included lots of self-conscious terms such as walnut-shelly, pepper-corny, ginger-beery, hearth-broomy, sawdusty, touch-woody, and Shakespearianly. More promising were fluffy, fruity, frivolity, fearfully, shaky, and specialty. By effective use of the prefix –un Dickens gave us unchangeable, unapproachable, and unholy. Adding the suffix -al to “arrive” and “aspiration” produced arrival and aspirational.

    Appending clauses wasn’t Dickens’s only word-creation technique. In some cases he subtracted them, as when his deletion of “ulent” from “fraudulent” led to fraud (with reference to an impostor). More often Dickens expanded rather than contracted, however, commonly creating one word from two (well before Lewis Carroll called such compound terms portmanteaus). These Dickensisms included bodyguard, coffee-shop, featherweight, hothouse, and postscript.


    Irving’s New Words

    Dickens didn’t just coin neologisms of his own but expressed appreciation for ones introduced by others. Among them was logocracy, an obscure term revived and popularized by Washington Irving (adapting the Greek logos, for “words,” to characterize a political system based on speechmaking and proclamations).

    More often Dickens expanded rather than contracted, however, commonly creating one word from two.

    Irving fertilized the English language with multiple new terms. His A History of New York didn’t just add the surname of its faux-historian Diedrich Knickerbocker to our lexicon as a nickname for New Yorkers (begetting Knicks, and knickers), but introduced terms such as bush-whacker, doughnut, and stenographer. In an 1806 letter, Irving Anglicized the Dutch baas, or “master,” into boss. (“I had to return, make an awkward apology to boss, and look like a nincompoop.”)

    His 1836 story “The Creole Village” included the phrase almighty dollar. When that story was republished two decades later, the author added a footnote in which he begged forgiveness for giving offense with his coinage. “This phrase,” he wrote, “used for the first time in this sketch, has since passed into current circulation, and by some has been questioned as savoring of irreverence. The author, therefore, owes it to his orthodoxy to declare that no irreverence was intended even to the dollar itself, which he is aware is daily becoming more and more an object of worship.”

    Like Dickens, Twain, and countless colleagues, Irving didn’t just use new words and phrases of his own invention but publicized ones he’d come across in his travels. Among them were sierra, sideline, mountaineer, lariat, caballero, and cigarillo. While touring the western frontier during the early 1830s, Irving heard Virginia expats talk of “Lynch’s Law.” This referred to the drumhead trials of suspected criminals named after Colonel Charles Lynch, a magistrate back home who was notorious for subjecting Tories to extralegal proceedings during the Revolutionary War. In a published account of his western odyssey, Irving said of Lynch’s Law, “as it is technically termed… the plaintiff is apt to be witness jury, judge, and executioner, and the defendant to be convicted and punished on mere presumption.”  In time, of course, Lynch’s Law became simply lynch law. 


    Excerpted from The Hidden History of Coined Words. Used with the permission of the publisher, Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Ralph Keyes.

    Ralph Keyes
    Ralph Keyes
    Ralph Keyes is the author of several books, including The Post-Truth Era, cited by Oxford Dictionaries as a primary source for their 2016 "Word of the Year." Keyes has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, ABC World News Tonight, and 20/20 (twice). He has been interviewed on All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, On the Media, and Fresh Air, and has written for Esquire, GQ, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Newsweek, Parade, Sports Illustrated, Harper's, and The American Scholar, where he also wrote a column on language. He now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Muriel.

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